Into the Icy Darkness II: The Next Generation
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  1. #1

    Into the Icy Darkness II: The Next Generation

    Its been a while since I've written an actual story (as opposed to a campaign story hour), so I'm going to give it a try.

    This is a completely fictional writeup about the children of the characters of the original, "Into the Icy Darkness," which can be found here. The players gave me vague descriptions of their PC's kid's personalities at age ten, so I've extrapolated out some six years later...

    This is being written and evolving as its posted. Feel free to comment, critique, etc. as you see fit.


    Chapter 1a - Friends... and Enemies


    Raven winced as skillful hands pulled tight the corset around her waist. The green eyes of the apprentice mage squeezed shut, and a sharp inhalation came through her pursed red lips.

    “All done!” Vintressa’s familiar soprano voice said, a smile completely filling the sound. “Go ahead, open your eyes!”

    Raven did as she was told, and gasped when she looked in the mirror.

    Many others would have let out such a noise had they seen her already slim, elegant figure, or her seemingly perfectly formed face (save a small mole on the right side of her chin, which annoyed Raven to no end). Some would have been amazed at the poise and confidence the young 16 year old carried herself with, or how her dark, midnight black locks continually threatened to break loose from their overly elaborate hairstyle and fall back to their natural, hanging forms down to her waist. Many would have been lost in the green eyes that now looked into the mirror with wonder, but Raven’s eyes were locked on the blue and white dress that now clad her frame.

    “Happy?” her bunkmate and friend Vintressa laughed. The other young woman was already clad in a beautiful yellow and cream strapless dress, a tiara with sapphires and rubies that matched her own blue eyes (and their red flecks) in her locks of blonde hair. The Princess had ‘commandeered’ the dress for Raven as a surprise... the young woman had been invited to her first Imperial gala by Raven’s mother, the Empress, and Vintressa wanted her friend to look the part.

    “Very happy!” Raven spun around and gave her friend a hug. The lunge knocked the two of them partway across the small space that was their joint room at the Imperial Mage’s Academy. They’re parents had arranged for them to be bunkmates for the previous three years, to the delight of the girls. “Its gorgeous! How much do I owe you?”

    “Nothing!” Vintressa waved off the request. “It was a gift... father bought it for mother way back just after he took the throne! It didn’t cost me anything, other than sweet talking my mother’s chambermaids.”

    “You... you didn’t ask your mom?” Raven began slowly. “You know she’ll be there-“

    “Oh, stop worrying!” Vintressa scoffed. “Mom would love it if she knew her dress was being worn by as pretty a girl as you!”

    “Really, you think so?” Raven asked again, spinning back to the mirror and spinning around. For the moment, the magical textbooks on their desk, the impending tests of doom from the wizard Aergrifyr, and the fact Raven hadn’t seen her parents in two years disappeared. An Imperial gala was what dominated her mind.

    “Yes. Maybe even you’ll attract Val’s attention! Wait, I ought to muss something up on you then!” Vintressa joked, causing Raven to laugh.

    “Yeah, wouldn’t want his sorry behind looking at me!” Raven laughed. It’d been years since she’d seen Vin’s brother, who supposedly had become somewhat of a looker. From Vin’s descriptions of him from her frequent visits to the Imperial Palace, his personality left much to be desired.

    “Then again, he might consider you under his station,” Vin lifted her nose high, and pranced around the room, “I am Valaron the Brave, magical warrior of the Palace steps!” she said in a halting, drawn out mockery of his voice. “I spar with midgets and gnomes, and know the secrets of the super-duper flaming katana of DOOOM!” Vin roared bombastically. Raven burst out laughing, only to discover the corset hurt if she laughed too hard.

    “Stop! I can’t breathe!” the dark haired girl wailed. “Vinny, you’re too funny! Stop it!”

    “Alright,” Vinesstra’s whirling dervish of humor slowed to a halt, though a massive grin still played across her face. “Though seriously,” she suddenly leaned close to her friend, “if he makes a look at you, just saunter up to him... you know, like you want something, and then lean very close... and ask him loudly about the time he shat all over his baptismal font!”

    “He WHAT!?” Raven gasped in laughing shock as the two slowly wandered out of their rooms. Vintressa had arranged for a carriage to be waiting below to take them to the palace. As Vinny told her the full story, Raven’s laughter continued to peal through the courtyards of the Academy, until they were on their way to the palace.

    “Vinny?” Raven asked quietly as the two girls lined themselves up along with the other young nobility being introduced at the function, “Do you think Val will actually be here? I mean, with him being a playboy and all practically, why would he show up to a mere social function?”

    Vintressa gave her friend a long, hard stare. “Don’t tell me that after you’ve only seen the few paintings of him along the wall, that you’ve fallen under his spell too.”

    “No! No I haven’t! I was just wondering,” Raven said quickly, before adding with a devious smile, “if he was here, we could prank him...” Vintressa’s face quickly changed to an evil grin as well.

    “Excellent...excellent!” Vintressa rubbed her hands together maliciously.

    “And, perhaps along the way, I can hook you up with a fine young noble or prince?” Raven asked before ducking away from Vintressa’s inevitable swing... a swing that never came. Instead, Vintressa’s face grew deep red, and after a quick glance around, she leaned over close to Raven.

    “You know about me and Royukgan?” she asked quietly, almost causing Raven to giggle. She’d seen the princess and the young man from Ak Konylu slip off between classes. It was quiet and discreet... Vintressa was the queen of quietness and discretion when it came to matters outside her brother; a trait she’d inherited from her grandmother and father, not her mother the Empress. Raven had to admit the boy was a looker... if anything because the colorful orange, black and white patterns on his skin looked so exotic... the remnants of his mixed ancestry, undoubtedly.

    Part of it made Raven laugh... that the cool and controlled Vintressa was the one that had fallen head over heels for the boy that was off-limits... no matter how open the Princess’ parents may have felt about letting her select her future husband. After all, it would be poor form for one of the twin Heirs to the Empire to be caught sneaking around with the young Prince of Han... one of the Ak Konylu kingdoms that some sixteen years before, had invaded the Empire.

    And been crushed by Vintressa’s own father in battle... not the best way to start family relations, obviously.

    “ did you know? Please,” Vintressa’s eyes went wide at her friend, reading the knowledge in Raven’s eyes, “don’t tell anyone! Anyone!” The Princess’ hand caught Raven’s hand held it tightly, pleadingly. The crowd around them twittered on about their own subjects, not listening at all to the conversation... Raven did not have to see her friend’s eyes darting about to know that the Princess’ senses were still acutely aware of the situation around her. If she got the slightest hint someone might be listening, Raven knew this conversation would suddenly become stillborn.

    Yet she wanted to hear her friend out. Wow... things must be serious... Raven thought, her own mind in a slight state of shock. She’d seen the way the two looked at each other, even fleetingly, while some droll wizard was delivering a boring lecture. The love was apparent in their eyes... easily readable. Even then, Raven had assumed her friend’s dalliances had been mere flirtings.

    She raised an eyebrow at Vintressa.

    “Please Raven? If anyone other than mother and father found out...” Vintressa’s dsoft whisper trailed off, even as she looked straight ahead.

    Raven looked deep into her friend’s eyes, and saw a look of particular desperation; her eyes kept cutting back to her friend’s, despite trying to look directly ahead. How serious did things get? Raven’s mind wondered at first, before the panic in the Princess’ eyes caused her to finally speak.

    “Yes, I know,” Raven said quietly. “Your secret is safe with me... and yes, he is a cutie,” she grinned, trying to allay Vintressa’s worry. It was rare her normally collected friend worried about something so deeply, and usually it would have been Raven that would have jumped into something that could have started a mess... she had fallen for boys often, until the most recent incident. Raven’s mind immediately jumped back to the incidents of only a year prior, and a frown danced on her face.

    I’ll never let anyone drop me like that again! And I’ll never stoop to allowing someone to fawn and pawn for me just because of my position!

    Her thoughts preoccupied her mind as Vintressa gave a soft sigh, its short, brief release letting forth a massive amount of relief. The Crown Princess gave a slight grin, and looked to her friend, only to see Raven’s face twisted into a slight frown, her eyes staring ahead as if focusing on a distant memory.

    “Still reflecting back on Raote?” Vintressa asked quietly, snapping Raven back to the present.

    “No! No no no,” she shook her head furiously. Her hand reached for her hip, to find it devoid of her normal spellpouch and whip... instead there was only the laced furrows and silk of a fine dress. That irked her, and the look must have become apparent on her face, as Vin gave a grin. Relief spilled on Raven’s face to see Vintressa’s alarm go back to normal.

    “Mother specifically invited you, Raven, so I’m guessing that should the actual dancing prove tedious, there’ll be other things there,” she tried to comfort the increasingly annoyed girl.

    “Are you kidding me?” Raven whispered back, “It’s an Imperial Ball for the children of the nobility! This is nothing more than organized match-making and politicking!” Raven cast a look around at the others in the line around them. All were near the age of the two girls, 16 years old, but the others twittered about in proper, patrician manners... the boys with their chests puffed out, the girls twittering and muttering about the latest poofah fashion. Raven’s eyes then went back to Vintressa. “I hate match-making and politicking!”

    “You are best friends with the Crown Princess, dear Raven,” Vin smiled sadly, “I’m afraid you’ll get a massive dose of both over your life!” Sadly, I have to put up with an even greater dose!

    Where is she?

    The young man, his black locks cut longer than normal, stood off to the side of the ballroom, near the line of ornate tables and divans set to the side for those who wished to sit. Orange glow, pleasant and carefree, beamed down from the massive chandeliers and mirrored ceiling above onto his decidedly pale flesh. His tall frame compared favorably with the silken tapestries and paintings that adorned the carved walls of the ballroom... indeed, his comparatively long nose and hawkish face was vaguely reminiscent of the features of some of the other great rulers whose ancient pictures adorned the walls.

    Nervously, he fidgeted in the pockets of his red suit-coat, flashy and festooned with buttons as it was, until he found the signet ring in his pocket. Carefully, he brought it out, and stared at it in his flat palm.

    It was beautifully made, its golden form encompassing three serpents intertwining, their heads coming together on the ring’s top. The eyes of each were jeweled, one eye a flawless emerald, another a priceless ruby, and the third a sapphire of perfection. In the middle of the three was a large diamond cut to perfection.

    Air, fire, earth and water, the voice of his father rang in Simeon’s head as he rolled the ring around, flipping it casually. These are the three elements that make all things, boy. By themselves, they may seem mundane, weak... but each serves a vital and important purpose.

    Without water, we would all thirst. Without fire, we would all freeze when the winters come. Without air, we would suffocate, and without earth, we would all starve. Each serves a purpose...

    Just like each person in the employ of this family, House Erelion...

    Part of Simeon thanked his father for that lesson so many years ago... when the boy was merely eight. The small speech detailing why spies and assassins were important, simply explained so the mind of a child, a future Duke of Erelion and possible Emperor, could understand why it was necessary to have persons capable of murder deep within one's staff.

    It was only a few months later that Simeon's father rose up in arms, and that the ‘March of the Dragonwings’ shredded through the Imperial countryside, shattering the old nobles that rose against the New Order being imposed by a beardless boy and his desert demon of a wife.

    The events shattered his father, leaving the proud man Simeon could remember nothing more than a grizzled wreck left to rot in a prison cell... a cell where he remains to this day, some twelve years later. House Erelion, the House of Three Serpents, had been crushed by House Caladron, the House of the Silver Dragon. Their lands had been split apart, their Duchy stripped from their hands.

    Yet House Erelion survived. They had been merely weakened, and thanks to some of their alert and cunning ‘dark retainers,’ skillfully used, House Erelion would likely rise yet again…

    Now WE have the advantage! part of Simeon wanted to chuckle, but his nervousness drowned out the urge. His sister, of course, had opted for the more ‘dramatic’ course to entangle the Imperial Family, and possibly intertwine the two eldest heirs to the Empire into the mess...

    Simeon kept fidgeting with the ring, as his eyes stared off into the crowd of younger, gossiping nobility, all strutting and puffing themselves out to jostle for position.

    “Simeon, why do you stare off as if you are sad and lost?” a melodic soprano voiced asked from behind him, and the young noble quickly put the ring back into his pocket.

    His sister had arrived.
    Last edited by Emperor Valerian; Saturday, 5th June, 2004 at 06:14 AM.

  2. #2
    Chapter 1b

    “Lord Canbris MacMahon, son of Duke Reginald of Abu Sirun!”

    Valaron Caladron gave a grumble as the newest noble’s son to enter the room stepped down the elegant stairway into the ballroom, his perfect smile and perfect face flashing a grin towards the group of girls in the corner, all of which gave a nervous giggle. Magically enhanced... all of it. Val could, if he closed his eyes, sense the magic reeking from the young noble’s body. It was a trait he’d inherited from his mother.

    The Crown Prince ran a hand through his flaming red hair in frustration. His manservants had put oils on it to shape it, but Val preferred it slightly disheveled. It made him look more action-oriented, more dashing in his opinion, as opposed to merely a dandy. He absolutely hated dandies, and Val’s deep blue eyes, flecked with small spots of red, flashed a look of disdain at the dandy now leaving the bottom of the stairs.

    The party was ostensibly for him, but Val would have preferred to not be here. He was sixteeen, an age where his marriagebility was not just a personal issue, but an issue that at times came close to dominating Imperial politics. And while Val’s parents had taken the extremely unusual step of allowing him free choice, they wanted him to at least publically, “be looking.” Many promises and agreements had been extracted from the notoriously independent minded nobles, on the account that Valaron, “would consider,” their daughter’s hand.

    Personally, Valaron could care less. Women of noble blood had never held his eye. His mother had to use her last resort, the line, “You need to do this to be a good prince,” to get him to cave in and attend. He would have much rather been out practicing his magic, at the armory practicing with his blades, or galloping about in the country, ever looking as to what was around the next corner, past the next bend in the road.

    Normally he would have the prismatic dragon Ari around... the dragon was inquisitive, and happily accompanied him on trips... albeit polymorphed into human form. He was on visit right now, out to the Dice’s in Holstean.

    It’s times like these I really miss the summer home, Valaron sighed. Some six years before, a large summer manor had been completed in the Obashi Desert, hundreds of miles from the hustle and bustle of Iskeldrun. There Val could shirk his Imperial responsibilities, and explore. He loved riding, checking out every nook and cranny of every cave for leagues around the manor. Sometimes his sister joined him, an occurrence that had stopped since she’d entered the prestigious mage’s school.

    Val himself loved his blades too much to devote entirely to magic, so his father took time out of every day to teach him the raw basics. Val’s goal was to be just like his father... a proud warrior that could just as soon slash you down with sword as he could launch an enormous fireball your way.

    His training had been complimented by the personal training his mother gave him as well... with katana and washizaki, rare blades only found in the Imperial Palace and the distant realm of Ak Konylu. One day, Val knew, he would have to wield the Swords of State... his father’s snow white bastard sword, and his mother’s flaming katana...

    His hand flashed down to his waist at the thought, and he felt the pebbly, jeweled hilt of a dress sword... not the familiar smooth steel of his bastard sword or the soft sandhog skin of his katana. That too, caused him to growl again.

    “Something bothering you, Highness?” a soft, caring voice behind him said. Val looked over his shoulder, into a pair of kind, gray eyes.

    “No, Hemmel,” Val lied to his manservant and good friend. “I’m just fine... just a little upset that the dandy over there had to show up.”

    “Yes, Your Highness... and I imagine that he is most pleased at being able to irritate you a bit,” the young man replied. Val’s face frowned... Hemmel’s point was made, as he gave a sigh.

    “Then I shouldn’t give him satisfaction by pouting,” the Crown Prince said quietly.

    “And you shouldn’t upset your mother and father by staying aloof,” Hemmel added, gently guiding Valaron from his reclusive alcove towards the main floor of the ballroom, and then releasing him into the torrent of people. The room’s massive chandeliers cast a warm glow over everyone inside, a glow that made Val want to frown. For Hemmel’s sake, he didn’t.

    So many in here have not set foot outside of carriage when shuttling between their manors, vacation homes, and the palaces, Val’s mind complained. They know little of the people that would be their subjects... and even less of how those people live.

    Val, in that regard, had been fortunate... his parents were of noble birth, but while his father was the son of a very powerful noble, his mother Siabrey, now the Empress, was daughter of a very minor noble family... little more than yeomen. Through most the first half of her life, Val’s mother had lived, worked, and laughed alongside everyday people... farmers and ferriers, thieves and guards, merchants and peddlers.

    She’d seen how they lived, and it had never left her blood. Indeed, she required both Valaron and Vintressa to every now and then go out incognito... to see how the ‘everyman’ lived. It was an experience Valaron was thankful for... it fit right in with his normally adventuresome spirit.

    He’d heard of the adventures his mother and father had in their youths... fighting beasts, living in camps in the wild, riding free. Part of Valaron wished he could do that, instead of being fawned over in the palace, twittered over by ladies he did not know, and followed by servants and retainers wherever he went. He wanted peace and quiet... the kind his mother still described fondly.

    As he thought, his face was a little sour when he noticed the daughter of the Duke of Chalcedon bowing gracefully before him. Over the preceding week, he’d received, at his own count, fifteen pieces of mail from her or her father. The Duke was pressuring Valaron’s parents hard to betroth him to her... and Val was thankful his parents so far were holding firm. He wanted nothing to do with her vapid person.

    “Is something troubling your mind, My Lord?” she said, voice rippling, perfectly feminine. Valaron motioned for her to rise, and took in her face. It would have been pretty, save he guessed she had at least an inch of makeup, glitter, and other ‘beauty supplies,’ covering it. Just like all of the other ladies here, who were starting to surround him as soon as his presence was noticed. All layering themselves with pretties and finery to hide themselves. Bah!

    “My mind is wrestling with a distant problem, that is all,” Valaron lied again. One thing that being the son of nobility forced one to do quickly was learn how to lie... and when he wanted to (or when it was politic to do so) Valaron was among the best. He never liked doing it, but he reasoned that if he told Lady Daril that her poor makeup, overly scented perfume and fawning presence annoyed him, the diplomatic results might not be pleasant.

    “Perhaps, my lord, some dancing my take your mind from said problem, and allow you to relax?” Daril said suggestively, raising an eyebrow. Valaron himself, while looking at her, actually paid attention to his peripheral vision... and the looks of absolute hate other girls were giving Daril for her priviledged position.

    I can’t let just her have all the fun... maybe if I cut down the time with each fawner, my nausea will decrease...

    “I think for now, I shall make greetings to all that have honored me by accepting the invitation to come here,” Valaron gave her a pleasant smile. “I shall keep your offer in mind, however.” I hope to the gods two hours from now you’ll be trapped on the far side of the room from me, so I won’t have to honor my promise!

    “It’s almost to us,” Vintressa gave a sigh of relief. “I don’t know why, as Crown Princess, I was stuck so far back in the line!”

    Raven watched as her friend’s mental feathers were ruffled slightly. Of the brother and sister pair of heirs, Vintressa had always been the more politically minded, ever mindful of manners and decorum as her brother left niceties aside. By age 11, she had already started sitting in on her father’s less important meanings, listening and learning while Valaron was out exploring the forests and dales outside of Iskeldrun. She already had networks of people that kept her informed, even though she now was in school, nominally away from the palace. Of course, her parents kept her informed... and most recently, during a potential crisis with the northern tribes, Emperor Lucius had asked his daughter for advice on settling the situation.

    “Probably they thought your mug was too ugly,” Raven quipped, trying to hide her own nervousness. The comment earned a glare from her friend, causing Raven to laugh. “You know I’m kidding! I bet your mother ordered everyone ahead, considering we were late!”

    “Yeah, that sounds like mom,” Vintressa sighed. The Empress Siabrey shared Valaron’s disdain for decorum, and if her daughter was late, too bad. She did not get the first place in line, and she’d have to wait with everyone else. “At least I wasn’t stuck here in this long line alone. Thanks for coming, Tarty,” the princess grinned.

    “Vintressa!” Raven gasped. “Don’t use that nickname in public!” she hissed, elbowing her friend hard. It had originated from an incident that involved a pie, sailing through the air. The marms at the academy had not been impressed, and Raven’s brilliant evasions and excuses that ultimately allowed both of them to avoid punishment had earned her the nickname from Vintressa.

    “Princess Vintressa Caladron, accompanied by Lady Raven Dice!” the stewards voice rumbled from their left, and both girls turned to look down the stairs, into the ornate room they would be entering. It seemed filled with people, a few dancing, many talking.

    Vintressa gulped, seeing the masses of people, and the large group of young noble men already eyeing her. “Well... into the fire we plunge.”

    “Why do I feel like a martyr of some kind when you say that statement?” Raven rejoined, before scanning the ground again. There were several loose gaggles of people, though two immediately caught her attention. The first was covering the young noble Canbris MacMahon, though Raven could not immediately sense the waves of magic from the young noble’s pendants, rings, and circlet. All she could sense was the entirely non-magical feeling that MacMahon was a pompous jerk.

    The second gaggle she could not tell as easily who was in its center. It was all decidedly women, who seemed to be gently touching those closer to the center on the shoulder... the noble decorum’s equivalent of, “Get the hell out of my way!” She caught a momentary glimpse of a red head peeking through the mass... and then his face... and her heart stopped.

    He looks ever better in person, part of her gawked. Rather quickly, her self control returned, and she stiffened in self-reproach. You were gawking! You ought to know better! After what happened to you with Raote!

    Valaron isn’t Raote, another part of her tried to chime in, before being smothered.

    Valaron himself was looking about, desperately. Trying to find some way out of this gaggle of people fawning over him, hoping for rank and privilege, all while keeping a smile floating as a thin veneer over his slowly building fury. By chance, his eyes flashed up towards the stairs, and for the first time that night, a genuine smile came to his face.

    “Ah, excuse me,” he said politely, thankful for a reason to break away from the Duke’s daughter. As he walked forward, the small crowd parted for him, and he had to resist the urge to break into a run towards the stairs. He was unable, however, to resist the urge to call out.

    “Vintressa!” he called to the blonde girl in the pair. She dashed down the stairs and buried him in a tight hug. “How are you doing squirt!” he grinned. Crowds around him be damned, he hadn’t seen his sister in two months, and he was going to engage in a little bit of brotherly teasing.

    “Hey!” Vintressa growled at her brother, giving him a very slight, playful elbow. If there hadn’t been a crowd, it probably would have been a much stronger, though no less playful strike. “Don’t touch my head... it took us an hour to get our hair set up!” she cautioned.

    “Well, it looks very nice,” Valaron glanced at his sister’s hair, done up in an ornate mound of curls over her pale face, and laughed. Vintressa, for all her sense of properness, hated having her hair like that, despite the numerous paintings adorning the palace walls of her formally dressed. “I’m guessing this is the only time I’ll get to see you done up like this for what... another three months?”

    “Quiet you!” Vintressa grinned, before glancing back at her friend. The Princess’ eyes widened slightly at seeing Raven’s face behind her... before suddenly narrowing into playful slits. “Raven! Stop feasting your eyes on Val and say hello!”

    “Hi Val,” Raven said with warmth, before her eyes looked at Vintressa and mirrored her friend’s look of playful reproach. The Crown Princess then broke into a huge smile at her friend’s angry gaze.

    “My, Vintressa! They never said you were bringing friends!” Val smiled, before putting an arm around each of their shoulders, and steering them away from the stairs. “It’s been a long time since the three of us troublemakers have gotten together! I vote we go and plot a new escapade in the corner... or just catch up on times again!”

    While Vintressa laughed at Valaron’s humor, the Prince felt Raven’s shoulders tense slightly under his arm. When he looked at her, still grinning from his quip, he saw the smile of Raven’s face was smaller, thinner... nervousness dancing in her eyes... eyes that ever so briefly stared into his. The nervous look then suddenly flashed towards Vintressa, and the narrowed look of fury built again, the dark haired girl’s face going slightly crimson.

    “So, Val? How is the playboy of our time dealing with the sudden attention?” Vintressa said in a low voice, ignoring Raven’s death stare. The crowds in the room cleared as the three walked through, allowing them to continue unimpeded, all giving the Crown Prince and his chosen company a respectable berth... while still craning to hear what was being said. Vintressa, alone among the three, had prepared for this, and her voice was low enough that she knew only Valaron and Raven could hear her.

    “Vin!” Valaron growled, looking at his sister. “I am not a playboy!” Vintressa merely laughed at his comment... and laughed even more as Valaron’s face descended from its normally copper tone to a deep shade of crimson.

    “I know,” she sputtered between laughter, “I merely love teasing you about it!”

    Simeon glanced towards his sister.

    “Do you think he’ll see us?” He gave a sharp puff of air upwards, shifting a long strand of black hair from in front of his brown eyes. In one hand, rather lopsidedly, hung a champagne glass, half full at this point with punch. Simeon felt it unwise to enter what could become a tense situation with his mind fogged by alcohol. Nerves, yet again.

    “Well,” Eryna glanced out into the crowd, shifting and moving as the Crown Prince moved through it, “I think he will.” Her long, lithe form was languidly sprawled on one of the ornate chairs, her raven hair done up, but partially hanging free, partly onto her shoulders and back Her lavender eyes gave a wink to a gaggle of awestruck sons of nobles that stared in her in her form-fitting dress, before turning back. “He’ll see us, sure enough. Just as much as those poor lackless boys see me right now.”

    “Eryna, I hope this works!” Simeon said. By his face, it was easy to pick his age... perhaps twenty one, nearly the same as his companion. He continued to stare moodily into his glass. “Otherwise, the fire will get slightly too hot for both of us... and Uncle!” He put me up to this, anyway!

    “Forget about Uncle for right now,” Eryna gave a wide, lazy smile, her hand gracefully bringing the cup of champagne to her full lips, which supped ever so slightly on the fine vintage. She suddenly set the glass down, and stared full bore at her brother, her lavender eyes full of intensity. “We have other reasons for doing this than Uncle’s political whims! We have father!”

    The intensity left her face, and she settled back into her chair, seemingly still languid and resting. Simeon knew she had merely relaxed the coiled spring that was her mind, and that she could tense it up again just as quickly if she desired. “Besides, you act as if you do not want to be Duke of Erelion, or possibly Emperor?” she added with a large smile. Simeon gave a sigh in response.

    “Don’t tell me you’re going to back out now?” she whispered, “After all I did for you?”

    “No, I’m not backing out. I’m just not sure how wise it would be for the two of us to cross swords, so to speak, with the Emperor!” Simeon took another drink of his punch. There was no way he’d ever consider actively drawing swords against the Emperor... Lucius V might be known for his patience and longsuffering... but stories were still told of how, 16 years ago, he slew a great demon 20 feet tall, and crushed an invading army...

    “Honestly, Simeon, you need to not worry as much,” Eryna’s attention returned to the crowd, watching the shifting gap opened by the approach of the Royal Person moved closer and closer. Slowly, gracefully, every movement perfectly controlled and timed to show off her frame, she sat up, and then stood. “It’s time, Simeon.”

    Gruffly the young man rose as well, running a hand over the front of his red and orange silk jacket and laced coif. If I head to the lions, I should at least look well. With an eye of disdain, he noticed his sister had nothing to change about her low-cut, form fitting silk gown. The others men still stared at her hungrily.

    The crowds finally parted the last time, revealing their quarry. The Crown Prince had the Crown Princess in one arm... and a woman neither of them recognized in the other. He was eagerly talking to his sister in quiet times about something... the other girl seemed rather nervous. Her face was red, and her eyes kept flecking back towards Valaron quickly, before looking straight ahead.

    Simeon stood beside his sister, and followed her lead when she boldly started striding forward.

  3. #3
    “So, Ari is staying with your father?” Valaron asked Raven, trying to distract his sister from her teasing of the poor girl.

    “Yeah,” Raven nodded. Part of her mind was still aloof, relatively cool and composed... save she was already hating the dress. True, it looked beautiful, but the corset was too tight, the loops on the sleeves too long, and it was a trial to not trip over the front of its long form. The Empress was slightly taller than Raven, so it dragged under the girl’s feet.

    The other part of Raven was nervous... tense. The setting was part of it. She wasn’t used to formal gatherings, despite how exciting they could be. The other was who she was standing next to.

    “Yeah is the only response I get?” Valaron pressed. He could see she was rather uncomfortable, and assumed it was because of the other nobles. Maybe talking to a friend will put her at ease.

    “Well, she hasn’t been home in two whole years, Val!” Vintressa jumped to her friend’s defense. “Kulloden is some eight hundred miles from here, and I’m sure she doesn’t have the cash on her to teleport back and forth!”

    “She could always ask mother for help. She does refer to you as the niece she wishes she had,” Valaron smiled at Raven.

    The girl’s heart skipped a beat slightly, and she coughed, trying to focus her thoughts. “I, um, I...” Raven tried to organize her thoughts into words. She was having an incredibly hard time doing so.

    “Knowing Raven, I’m sure she likes getting along by herself, without always turning to Auntie Empress and Uncle Emperor to help her out,” Vintressa replied with the words she knew Raven was trying to say. She gave her friend a smile that was devilish, and Raven blushed again as Vintressa launched into a story about the raven haired girl’s independence.

    “And then, of course,” Vintressa babbled on a few minutes later, “Raven told Aergrifyr that in her opinion, launching a fireball into the mess would have just fixed the problem! That caused the class to break out in laughter, didn’t it?” Vintressa babbled happily... until she heard no response from her brother.

    “Val? Are you even listening?” she growled, turning to look at him, and seeing a look of utter and complete shock on his face.

    “Um... Vinny? Who invited them?” he hissed into her ear. Vin followed the direction of his subtle head nod, and found herself facing the two children of the late Duke of Erelion. Her mind raced, placing their names and backgrounds... Simeon and Eryna... their father had a counterclaim to the Imperial throne, and attempted to start a rebellion... Quickly, her own face followed Val’s in slipping into a blank look, one that covered up her confusion and shock inside.

    “They are scions of House Erelion, despite who their father was. They will be powerful nobles... and they deserved the respect of being invited,” Vintressa’s politically focused mind said quietly. “I never would expect them to show up, however,” the Princess added guardedly.

    “Wha...?” Raven’s mind asked. She gave herself a mental headshake, and with a growl realized she had been staring at Valaron... again. Focus, Raven! –her mind scowled at itself. Valaron and Vintressa are looking rather uneasy at this pair in front of us... something is going on. Should I slip away? Do Val and Vin want me to stay?

    “Greetings, My Lord Valaron,” the woman bowed. From her large, perfectly shaped eyes, Raven could seemingly see her soul reaching out to Valaron’s trying to tug at his. The girl’s face reddened again, as the young lady knew what it was to be the ‘third wheel.’ She nervously looked back at Val, hoping to get a hint from him as to what she should do. Strangely, his arm had not let her shoulder... indeed, she felt it tense up, gripping her shoulder tighter.

    Maybe he’s nervous at seeing such a thing of beauty in front of him? Raven’s mind wondered. She had to admit, the lavender eyed beauty to Val’s front was easily the best eyecatcher in a room full of people seeking to catch the Crown Prince’s eye...

    “Greetings, Lady Eyrna, Lord Simeon,” Valaron did not even incline his head politely, and his greeting was far more stiff and formal than her flowing words. He’d seen the way she’d inclined her head, trying to display her graceful neck. She’s trying to show off her beauty to me... despite the fact her House and mine are enemies...

    Instantly his mind went defensive, and he sensed the upswelling of magic billowing from her necklace, rings, small tiara, indeed even her clothing. Why are you here... at a formal ball thrown by your enemies? True... we do not assassinate our foes, but still, you would only come here for a purpose of some kind...

    “Highness, would you care to chat with us?” Eyrna gave a beautiful smile to accompany her suggestion, her hand gracefully gesturing to one of the ornate tables near the side of the room.

    He stiffened... so this young man is not nearly as lustful or foolish as to fall for such an obvious trap... her mind graded. She had not expected mere beauty to work on him. That raised Eyrna’s curiosity greatly... a sixteen year old that had women fawning all over him due to his rank, yet still possessing iron self control.

    “We have something we would like to discuss with you. It involves a friend of yours... a little younger than you...” Her voice, while sweet and innocent sounding to the casual observer, was not nearly so quiet and unassuming to Valaron’s ears. There was a certain dangerous... even poisonous element to it.

    That alone caught his curiosity. The veiled reference to his ‘a friend’ caught the rest of him. Who does she mean? Tark? The Dice kids? Amarine? Fortunas? Hemmel? Even while he and Vintressa had spats and teased each other much, neither would tolerate someone harming or alarming the other. And both of them were very protective of their friends that did not retain a ‘Highness’ within their titles.

    “Very... well...” Val said guardedly, a gentle push from his arms moving Raven and Vintressa towards the table. Whatever goes on here... I want witnesses to it. There is trouble afoot. Suddenly, Eyrna raised her hand, another polite but dangerous smile coming to her face.

    “Your sister is welcome to come,” she said bittersweetly, “bur your other friend might want to enjoy the dancing more than our political discussions.”

    He wants the other girl present? Who is she? Eyrna’s mind searched its extensive knowledge to try and place a face. One unfortunate thing about the Emperor and Empress was that until recently, when their children’s age compelled them to let their lives be more public, the Imperial Family had sheltered its children. Information on who Valaron and Vintressa’s closest confidants was still only just being put into place by other Houses.

    Black hair... green eyes... slight mole on lower left chin... Eryna’s photographic memory flashed through the thousands of faces of important people she’d met and seen... another advantage her mind gave her. Rather suddenly, she gave a smile, placing things together with a few faces she’d seen before.

    Of course!

    Political discussions? Raven’s mind questioned. That is a red flag... and they want me gone. She glanced protectively towards Valaron and Vintressa... the three had been close friends since they were mere babes... close enough that Raven’s own father had taken to calling them, “the bear cubs.” And she was not about to allow a fellow pair of ‘cubs’ to be cut off in a diplomatic slaughter. At least, she assumed that was what these two people were after. It seemed what everyone who didn’t like the Imperial Family was after.

    “With all due respect,” her alarms giving her tongue motion, “I do believe that His Highness might want me to accompany him and Her Highness,” Raven replied coldly. She had no care for what Vintressa or Valaron’s feelings on the subject might be, she was coming with. “I... believe His Highness would appreciate additional counsel, should this be regarding a personal matter pertaining to him.”

    A moment after the last word left her lips, she winced. She didn’t know if Val actually wanted her to come with, she’d merely played this bluff to try and stay with her friends. I hope he’ll play along... she thought as she unconsciously pulled closer to him... a move that Vintressa was echoing.

    Eyrna turned, slowly and with poise, to look at the miscreant daughter of a mere Baron.

    “Of course, you may come, Lady Dice,” she said sweetly. Mentally as she spoke, she categorized the way the young woman, daughter of a close friend of the Emperor, had slid even closer to Valaron, and the way her hands danced slightly above her waist... a spot where a weapon would likely sit.

    She has feelings for the Prince, Eyrna’s mind grasped, and a gleam came into her eyes. It shall be enjoyable to drag her family into this fall as well, but how?

    “I was merely thinking that you may not enjoy a nice political discussion. Perhaps I was mistaken,” Eyrna smiled sweetly, as her agile mind wrestled with its new problem.

    The Dice family is not powerful... they are weak. They have no armed forces, no troops... they merely have their shops and inns spread all around Irulas. Money does not necessarily equal power...

    Yes, it shall be fun watching her fall within our plot!

    Valaron’s eyes shot over to Raven as the group sat down at one of the more removed tables from the rest of the crowd. Her eyes burned with an intensity he had never seen before, fiery and sharp, directed at Eyrna as she gracefully sat down. If present company had not been there, he would have likely given her a smile of thanks. As it was, his own gaze focused on Eyrna.

    “As you may know, m’lord,” Eyrna began, “unfortunately Count Lawes of Holstean died a year ago, and has since been replaced by Count Elberron. Elberron has been most... aggressive... in pursuing the strict adherence to Imperial law and code.”

    What does she want? Has Elberron pushed the law onto some of their family lands? Do they want him replaced? Valaron’s mind began weighing her words, trying to discover her intentions. Elberron had intentionally been placed in Holstean after the death of Count Santac Lawes a year prior. While Elberron was dull and mechanical to a certain extent, he was steady, and followed the rules of the law to the letter.

    “And, I regret to inform you, that your father, Lady Dice, is currently in violation of the law.” While Eyrna’s face conveyed a slight trembling sense of pity, the consumate actress could not hide the smile that danced in her lavender eyes.

  4. #4
    “How!?” Raven hissed, altogether too loudly. Several heads turned in the direction of the small group, only to be dissuaded by a stare from Simeon. The young girl’s mind raced through the business dealings she knew her father was in, trying to find one that was in the least bit shady. She couldn’t.

    “You are aware, m’lady, that there is an Imperial statute... put into effect by our beloved Emperor Lucius and Empress Siabrey, that forbids anyone from capturing and all except the Imperial family from owning dragons?” Eyrna raised an eyebrow, a smirk almost burrowing to the surface of her face, dying merely moments before it broached.

    Raven stared at the woman in shocked silence. Ari merely stays with my parents, and only for a few months. He ASKED to visit them. We don’t own him, no more than... Vintressa owns Valaron! Harsh words threatened to explode from Raven’s mouth, but she bit her tongue. I cannot give this woman more ammunition!

    Eyrna, for her part, actually let her smile break through, in all of its sadistic glory. “Some sources tell me that currently in your father’s home is a most rare dragon... one that displays all the colors of a prism.” The lavender eyed beauty, rapped her delicate fingers along the tabletop. “And unfortunately, this information may find its way into Lord Elberron’s hands...”

    “You wouldn’t dare!” Raven finally snapped. “Ari is not our property! He is merely staying with us! You have no-“ her rant suddenly sputtered to a halt, under the gaze of Vintressa and Valaron. It was then, she realized she’d made a critical error.

    She’d admitted Ari was there in the first place. And Eyrna was already smiling triumphantly.

    “Oh... so you admit the dragon’s presence? And his name is... Ari, you say?” her soprano purred, “Most interesting. Having such knowledge and not reporting it to the authorities would qualify as ‘aiding an offender,’” she smiled even brighter.

    “What do you want?” Valaron growled, all civility lost in his mind. “It’s apparent your horrid stench wouldn’t be here and uttering threats against my friends unless you wanted something. Speak!”

    Vintressa’s face winced at her brother’s words. This has already entered an area of negotiation. They want something... but instead of negotiating, we’re hurling insults! Glancing at the pair, she decided to take a page out of their book. Simeon Erelion was not speaking at all... and with Val’s temper, she probably shouldn’t either. She flashed Val a brief, but hard look, telling him she’d take over talking from now on.

    “Oh... what do we want?” Eyrna casually swished her wineglass around, her eyes flitting above to the heavens. “Oh, I am afraid the price would be high... as the stake are high. Lady Dice,” she leaned towards Raven, “are you aware of what the penalty, according to the code, for owning a dragon?”

    “We don’t own him! He is free! Merely staying with us!” Raven snarled, her eyes dangerous. Don’t you DARE threaten my mother and father! She felt a pair of hands grasp her shoulder, and pull her back... Vintressa once again.

    The Crown Princess thanked her luck that she sat between Valaron and Raven, as she now hand hands planted firmly on both of their shoulders. While Valaron had a dress sword which could cause damage, the look in Raven’s eyes scared Vintressa a little. The girl looked as if she would be more than willing to kill Eyrna right here, on the spot.

    “Yes, we know. Confiscation of estates, and twenty years in prison,” Vintressa said coolly, keeping her own violent emotions firmly under control.

    The ‘Dragon Law’ had been issued to keep petchulant nobles from capturing and seizing baby dragons, and ‘brainwashing’ them into being slaves. After living beside, and serving with so many of the noble species, Lucius and Siabrey didn’t want to see their kind imprisoned and abused any longer.

    I have no doubt that should the case go to trial, Raven’s parents would be found innocent, Vintressa’s mind measured, But the damage to their finances, their reputation and business would be catastrophic! Not to mention Imperial prestige! her political jumped in. If a close friend of the Emperor was even accused of violating such a contreversial law... Her mind was already wrapping around how easy a case could be made by upstart nobles, such as the remnants of the Erelion family, to band the nobility together to try to oust the Emperor... again.

    Matters were further complicated that until today, Ari had been hidden from the public. Considering how angry reaction was to the ‘Dragon Law,’ and the long history the Empire had of nobles capturing wyrmlings for their own devices, Lucius and Siabrey had thought it not wise to let word get around that the Imperial family was raising an extremely rare, and extremely powerful wyrmling dragon. Raising, in the eyes of many, would suspiciously look like what the nobles were banned from doing...

    “Obviously you have evidence?” Vintressa replied to Eyrna, and the lavender eyed beauty nodded with the same damnable smile. Vintressa pursed her lips in thought.

    “Well, then I am assuming that either you gave us this as a warning, or you wish to use this as a bargaining chip,” Vintressa replied, very little inflection in her voice, “and judging by our past family histories, I’m disinclined to believe that you would willingly do us a favor, no offense intended, m’lady. You are well aware that Lord Dice would undoubtedly be found innocent, however.”

    Eyrna gave a small chuckle, which surprised the Princess. “You read us well, Highness. And as you are probably aware, the cost of such a trial could very well ruin them, as well as damage Imperial credibility... a great deal of damage. So,” her fluid voice continued, “you’ll understand if our demands are high.”

    Understanding one’s enemy is paramount, Eyrna heard her Uncle’s voice in her mind. This is where your father failed... he doubted how strong and deep the Emperor’s support was. We shall not fail there... and thus we have strove to understand how the brain of those Caladrons work. She gave a smile, as she realized how dead on her uncle’s assessment of Valaron and Vintressa was. And while this Raven Dice was an unexpected variable, her reactions seemed to mirror Valaron’s...

    All to easy to predict, was Eyrna’s present assessment of the three.

    “We are... generous enough,” Eyrna’s use of the third word was twisted, “to give Your Highnesses some choices. The first, easiest choice, is for Valaron to declare his wish to be betrothed to myself,” Eyrna smiled. The Crown Prince immediately recoiled, eyes blazing fury, which caused Eyrna to laugh.

    “The other option is for the three of you to go towards the North, and fetch an item for us,” Eyrna leaned towards them. Her eyes flecked towards Valaron. “If a trip is too arduous for you all, then I look forward to deflowering the Crown Prince,” she said suggestively. Her face broke into another grin as Val gave the response she expected... a string of curses under his breath, his eyes dangerous with anger.

    Vintressa’s first instinct was the slap the woman, but her political mind took control too quickly for this instinct to ever come into her eyes. What item? her curiousity asked. Eyrna read the curiosity in the Princess’ mind.

    “We’ll tell you the item at a later date... when our agents are able to inform you.”

    Vintressa’s eyes narrowed, and she decided to play her trump card. “You seem to forget that we could just report this blackmail to Her Majesty,” Vintressa purposefully used her mother... the nobles feared her more, “and I guarantee you, it would be the end of House Erelion.” It was the Crown Princess’ turn to smile.

    “Well then, Highness, I beg you look towards the upper balcony,” Eyrna motioned her towards a location behind her.

    As Valaron, Vintressa and Raven looked upwards, they saw from one of the upper balconies of the ballroom the Emperor and Empress, watching the ball. The two were smiling at their free time, and talked and laughed. Behind them stood Hemmel, patiently waiting for an order from the Imperial Couple. The Empress’ fiery red eyes swept around the room, as Eyrna’s voice spoke again.

    “I would have preferred to keep this surprise for a later date, but I suppose now is the best time to let you know of it,” Eyrna’s own face grew serious. “Your friend, Hemmel is it? Behind the Emperor and Empress,” Eyrna gestured backwards with her head again.

    Vintressa’s mind quickly leaped towards the next, obvious statement, and her face fell. “No... no...” The Princess tensed her legs, ready to leap up and shout a warning, before Eyrna’s dark gaze rooted her in her seat.

    “Do not motion or warn... else he will strike. I can tell you,” Eyrna leaned back, her smile one of triumph, “that when one can use one’s bare hands to remove heads, one does not need magic or weapons to be an assassin!” She then leaned forward, her face deadly. “Do not inform them of our little talk... otherwise you shall quickly find yourself Emperor Valaron... or would it be Empress Vintressa?”

    The Crown Princess’ fury rose within her throat, but she quickly realized the hopelessness of their situation. Even as Siabrey’s eyes found the small group, Vintressa could see that Eyrna and Simeon continued to sit with their back to the balcony... the Emperor and Empress couldn’t see who they were. They would find out later, but who knew how long that would take.

    Siabrey flashed a distant grin and gave a wave to her children.

    “Wave,” Vintressa hissed, baring her teeth in the brightest smile her tense face could manage. Reluctantly, Valaron gave a cursory wave... something not out of his character when he didn’t want to be bothered. The two watched tensely as their mother said something with a smile to their father... never knowing they were under threat... the two then turned and left the balcony

    “I trust we shall have your cooperation?” Eyrna watched their gaze return to her, taking joy at the unbridled hatred and fearful powerlessness in their eyes. “Or do you wish to be Emperor, or my bedmate?” she looked at Valaron again. He gave her another sneer, but before he could lunge Vintressa’s hands gripped his shoulder hard.

    “Yes,” Vintressa said, between gritted teeth.

    “Very well then... Highness, Lady Dice,” Eyrna rose and gave a smiling, demure bow that was filled with sarcasm only the three could see. “Stay quiet about this, and all shall remain well. Break out of line, and I regret what will become of your parents and families,” she added softly. “Expect to receive notice from one of our servants in the coming days for instructions. Good day,” she bowed again, and quietly she and Simeon removed themselves from the presence of the three.

  5. #5
    While her brother and friend were still speechless from their rage, Vintressa pulled them to their feet, and with an arm below their waists, pushed them outside of the ballroom. She knew a raging inferno was likely to explode from both, and the last thing she wanted was it to happen in the midst of a ball.

    If word gets out that House Erelion placed an assassin within the Imperial Household... there are so many that would get bright ideas from that. No, the notion that the Imperial Household is impenetrable must remain! Otherwise... Vintressa’s mind shuddered at the thought of having assassins from multiple houses. A security nightmare, that would impede running the state...

    The hurried progress of the three out of the ballroom was something she couldn’t make the others notice, and as she rough-handled Valaron and Raven out of the room, she merely gave anyone that looked at them a death stare. Paths cleared, and quite quickly the three of them were in the hallways of the palace.

    “Do not speak until we are in a safe place,” Vintressa growled at both of them, shuttling them through the numerous halls, corners and alcoves, and through several secret passages of false doorways until she was confident no one was within earshot of even her brother’s loudest roar. Valaron’s temper had been impatiently waiting, and as soon as she nodded, he left loose a string of profanities that would have impressed their “Uncle” Grumki, the half orc cleric of Kord.

    “Pissing Pelor’s...” he continued to snarl, before turning to Vintressa. “Vin! They’re NOT going to do this! They are NOT going to hold us hostage to some tom-foolish whim of theirs! And by Pelor’s Flaming Armpits, I am NOT going to marry that... that... son of a two bit, roasted ass, daughter of Loviatar’s wench!” he spat.

    “Threaten MY family!” Raven’s voice exploded in disgust as Valaron’s rant began. “We are true, nice, LAW-ABIDING family, not some two-bit smugglers! By the Gods, if I get my hands on that girl!” Raven’s eyes flashed, and Vin almost had to smile at the mental image of her choking Eyrna. It was a pleasing image, and Vintressa wished she could choke the woman as well.

    But there is still business at hand, the Princess’ mind settled.

    “Quiet!” Vintressa said. She raised her hands at the death stare from the other two. “Instead of cursing, swearing, and kicking about... I simply propose we think.”

    “Think!? Think about what!? How we’ve been jack-kicked into a corner by a vile...” Valaron started again, only to be cut off by his sister.

    “You forgot smelly, Val,” Vintressa added. The comment might have been humorous in other times, now it was meant to trip him up long enough she could regain the floor. Once he sputtered, she launched onward. “Yes, think. Figure out what it is that they want so bad, and why they want it. Once we know that, we can form our own plan!”

    “But, they still have an ace-in-the-hole, regarding your family... and a big set of cards against mine,” Raven sighed. “And for all my respect for your mom and dad’s fighting skills... if what they say about Hemmel is true...” Raven shuddered.

    “If what they say about him is true,” Val nodded, before giving a sigh of his own. His anger had abated enough that he was now thinking again. “They might be trying to merely bluff us.”

    “She knew that mom and dad were going to be in the balcony... she was looking away when they all showed up. And she knew Hemmel was behind them. Knew his name even,” Vintressa reasoned. “That all leads me to believe that they DO have some kind of arrangement with him, at least.”

    “But why Hemmel?” Valaron looked off, lost for a split second. “He’s been a loyal friend for... five years!”

    “Val!” Vintressa grabbed his shoulders and looked him in the eye. If you’d paid attention, if you’d sat in on Dad’s council meetings, you would understand why! “It takes months, even years to place an assassin close to its target... the better protected the target is, the longer it will take!”

    “So you’re telling me, that House Erelion has been just sitting on this plan for five years or more?” Raven raised an eyebrow in question. Vintressa shook her head no.

    “Not necessarily this plan... but some plan. The plan could have changed, with him still being an integral part. My question is what is so big that they would use him to leverage US into fetching an item for them?” Her mind then jumped to a thought, “If they had him in this long, and wanted to merely kill the family...”

    “Vin...” Valaron visibly shook at that thought. “I think you’re right. They want something to do with us.... what though?”

    “Well, if they wanted to just get an item, why would they ask us to do it?” Raven piped in, “or more specifically, you two? I mean, they could’ve just sent some hirelings to fetch the item, and offed all of us. Far more convenient on their part.”

    “They need us for some reason,” Vintressa thought aloud, before giving a genuine smile, which broke into a light laugh.

    “What’s so funny?” Val looked at his sister in annoyance.

    “We know something about them Val!” Vintressa now genuinely laughed. “They need us to get this item! They can’t harm us or kill us until we get it!” At her brother’s look of confusion, Vintressa’s mind condensed the idea of plots and counterplots running in her head into one simple idea.

    “Val, we have some leverage! They need us to fetch this item. All we have to do is stall in getting it...”

    “Stall long enough that we can figure out a way to let Mom and Dad know we’re in trouble, and the danger they’re in, without tipping off Hemmel or his bosses,” Valaron’s mind finished her thought as he grasped the idea.

    “For now,” Raven said quietly, “I think we should head back to our room at the Academy, and gather our supplies. Or rather, I should,” Raven smiled. “Vintressa, do you know where I can borrow a spellbook?”

    “Why do you have a grin on your face now?” Valaron complained. “Its like everyone has a joke, an ace-in-their sleeve or something that I don’t understand!” He gave a growl when it seemed like no one was listening to him.

    “Hm... you could use some of your family skills and slip into one of the palace mages’ rooms,” Vintressa grinned, realizing what Raven was about to do. “I mean, your father used to be one of the best thieves in the Empire, if what mother says about him is correct. Some of that had to rub off!”

    “Some,” Raven grinned. “Which way are those rooms?” She took the small tiara off her head, and tossed to it Vin. “And if I’m going to be sneaking around, I should probably get into something more... nondescript.” She started to unbutton the back of her dress, till she remembered Val was present. She stopped, her face red.

    Vin glanced from her friend, towards her brother, who also was red faced in the dim light. “Here... I actually did memorize spells like I was supposed to, unlike some people,” a glare went towards Raven, “and I can give you a minor illusion... mage’s robes?”

    “That’ll do,” Raven grinned slightly at her friend’s admonition.

    Vintressa was thankful she’d learned how to manipulate this minor magic without spell components. Quietly she intoned a few words, and felt the magic from her knowledge slowly move in tune with the distant magic in her blood. Before her eyes, bluish sinews of glowing lines seemed to form in mid air, sinews she wrapped around her friend. In her mind, the picture of the bright, colorful, and concealing robes of a court mage entered her mind, and a few moments later, it looked to Vin and Val that their friend was now immersed within such cloth.

    “There,” Vin said. “And if anyone looks at you crosswise,” she pulled off her own signet ring, “carry this as well. I doubt they’ll pressure you too much if you flash this in their direction.”

    “Thanks, Vin. What specifically do you want from your stuff?”

    “My rapier,” Vintressa said quickly, “spellbook of course, and my travelling clothes, if you can find them.”

    “See, Simeon? You just needed to be the eyes that kept others away! Things are proceeding according to plan!” Eyrna smiled at her brother as they left the ballroom, arm in arm.

    “I’m... I’m still a little concerned,” Simeon replied nervously. Instinctively, he reached into his pocket and his hands clasped his family signet ring. It shape brought his father’s words back into his head.

    “About what?” Eyrna replied, confidence in her voice. “Our man is in position, and once they bring the stone back to us, we merely arrange for an ‘accident’ to befall our dear little runners, while Hemmel deals with the bigger targets!” No names left her lips, though the intent was easy for Simeon to understand.

    “And after that?”

    “Uncle makes his moves, and you shall shortly find yourself in the throne room,” Eryna finished.

    With the Emperor, Empress, and their elder siblings gone, the six year old and five year old should be easy to remove. Not even the silver dragon guardian of theirs can withstand the armies of my alliance of nobles alone if we have that stone, and the Imperial Guard is unlikely to back a six year old ruling the Empire with no clear Regent! We shall promise them order and strength, her Uncle’s voice rang in her head, and they shall embrace us! The brats can be taken care of later!

    She glanced down to her own signet ring, specifically to the blood red ruby that formed one of the snake eyes. She smiled, imagining the arrival of another massive, blood red stone that if all went well, would quickly be within their grasp...

    Raven gave an entirely un-ladylike giggle, which only caused her to laugh more. Instead of her ringing, melodic laugh, what came out was a high pitched noise, a cross between squeaks, bleets, and a child’s laughter. The giggling of a gnome.

    It had been all too easy to slip into the rooms of the palace mages... when this was all over, she intended to tell her Auntie and Uncle to increase palace security. Only one person had tried to stop her as she went through the halls of the Mages’ Wing... a guardsman. Fortunately, when she flashed the signet ring of the Princess at him, he backed off.

    As for finding a mage’s spellbook, it had been simple. Just as it was at the Academy, so many of the wizards were so focused on discovering spells and researching the realms of magic, that they were very absent-minded. And most of the academy mages, she knew, had at least two spellbooks. Their personal one (which they guarded jealously) and their more public one, which was far less powerful, and tended to be the one left lying around, sometimes unattended. Or attended, but left open as the wizard researched other items.

    When she slipped into the Mage’s Library, there were numerous wizards about, collecting dusty volumes and pouring over their contents. It was very easy to walk up behind one that had several dusty tomes open, and read over his shoulder. After walking around enough, she found one open to the spell she was looking for... polymorph self.

    They really need to be more careful, her mind laughed, You never know when a rogue’s daughter is going to be looking over your shoulder!

    It was far into the night by this point, and she selected the safest route to the Academy from the palace. Within the higher quarters of the city, there was little, if any crime. Too many that resided here either had powerful magic on their persons, or nasty bodyguards that would make mincemeat of all save the most careful assassins. And somehow, Raven doubted that any assassins would be looking for a small, male gnome giggling as he dashed through the streets.

    She still had on her mage’s robes, now fluttering much lower to the ground, and she planned to play the part of a partying gnome student that had returned slightly too late in the night. Thence, she would slip up to her and Vintressa’s room, and gather supplies, as well as changing back to her normal form.

    She looked up, and watched as the imposing gothic towers, spires, and statues of the Imperial Magic and Arcane Academy loomed in front of her. The building was massive, sprawling, easily one of the largest buildings in the Empire outside of the Imperial Palace itself. As she walked through the massive front gates, which loomed some fifty feet overhead, her smaller form made her seem even more insignificant.

    Focus, Raven, her mind chimed in, and she hustled through the gate... and into the waist of a tall man clad in immaculate robes.

    “Um... hello Professor!” she stammered slightly. The wizard’s mane of white air flowed down into her face, as he leaned over. Aergrifyr’s steel gray eyes looked into hers, and his eyebrow arched in stern question.

    “I do not remember your face,” his voice said in a monotone.

    “I...I am a... a... first year, sir. I have not reached a high enough form to take your classes,” she bowed hurriedly. Mentally, she winced.

    “Mmmm,” he growled, scratching his beard. He stood back up to his full, imposing height, and in an instant, the swish of robes signaled him leaving.

    For a few seconds afterwards, Raven was unable to move in shock. Then she doubled her speed, dashing through the halls. She was not aware of the footfalls that followed her...

  6. #6
    “Rapier?” Valaron raised an eyebrow at Vintressa. The two had sequestered themselves in Valaron’s bedroom, for privacy and planning. “Since when does a wizard practice with blades?”

    “For about two years I have,” Vintressa smiled in triumph. “The last time Raven visited home, Uncle Shaun gave me some lessons... yes, with his pink blade,” Vintressa answered Valaron’s unasked question. “I used some of my the money I received my last birthday to get my own blade… its nothing fancy, it has a little magic in it…” When her brother gave her a smirk of disbelief, she growled. “It’s not unusual! Raven is an expert with a nagaika, for crying out loud!”

    “A naga-who?” Valaron asked, brow furrowed in question. He was a weapons aficionado, familiar with everything from katanas to maces to bows and crossbows. But for the life of him, he had never heard of the device Vintressa spoke of.

    “A nagaika. Its basically a whip, studded with glass,” Vintressa explained. “It can leave quite nasty wounds when wielded properly.”

    Valaron winced. He’d seen normal whips in use before, and could only imagine the damage one studded with sharp objects could do. If you wrap that around someone’s neck... a nasty image of blood, gore and pieces of spinal cord made him wince more. When he looked up, Vintressa was leaning close to him, her eyes and face dead serious.

    “So don’t mess with her heart, m’kay?” she said quietly but forcefully. “She’s been messed with once, and if she’s got her nagaika with her, I’m not responsible for missing limbs. Chances are, I’ll lop one off before she’ll get to you,” Vintressa warned. Don’t try to play playboy with her!

    “What? You’re talking like I’ve been making moves, eyeing her and the like! I haven’t!” Valaron protested his innocence. I haven’t toyed with her! Why would I toy with her! She’s a good friend!

    Vintressa responded with a glare, and went back to what she was doing before... hefting Valaron’s weapons up, testing their balance. She picked up his katana, and gave it a few swings. The blade was large, and she nearly lost her balance because of the momentum.

    “Gimme that,” Valaron grabbed the blade from her hand. “You’ll break something.”

    Vintressa scowled when he took the weapon from her, and gave a slight huff. “Just remember, don’t mess with her heart, ok!”

    “Ok, ok, I won’t!” Valaron growled back. “Why did that suddenly come up? Something’s going on with Raven?”

    Vintressa looked at him again, but didn’t say anything on the subject.

    “Now, what do you think they’re having us fetch for them?” Vintressa changed the topic. “It’s obviously something very special, if they are going to all of this effort. And it sounds suspiciously like the Ice Diamond of years before.”

    “Ice Diamond? The thing from mother’s stories?” Valaron questioned, his voice betraying his annoyance that she didn’t answer his question about Raven. “That thing was broken and is sitting in the Abyss, Vin! Not here! And I sincerely doubt House Erelion journeyed to the Abyss, stole the broken staff from Graz’zt, remade it and then lost it!”

    “No... mom said that only one of the two big stones that was designed to go into that staff was found and put with it. The Ice Diamond. Maybe they’re after the other stone?” Vintressa’s mind leapt.

    The other stone did something I bet. Mom and Dad never found out what... perhaps that is what they were after!

    “The Fire Stone or what not?” Valaron asked, wracking his brain for details. He coudl recall by heart all of his mother’s battles in excruciating detail, recount his father’s ordeals by sword, but he couldn’t remember such mundane details as a stone the two never recovered in their urgency to put down his grandmother’s rebellion.

    “Maybe,” Vintressa sat on the side of his bed. For a few seconds, she looked off in the distance thinking. Finally she turned to her brother again. “Do we know what this Fire Stone does?

    Valaron shrugged. “No clue here, other than its magical. And if it’s like that Ice Diamond, I probably don’t want to... what?”

    “Val!” Vintressa was now staring at him, her eyes wide in discovery, “You know that Ice Diamond! It couldn’t be carried by anyone who was not a part of the Caladron family! We are parts of the Caladron family!”

    “So that’s why they need us,” Valaron nodded, grinning as he finally understood. “So now that we know what they want, we just need to come up with some ways of foiling them.”

    Raven breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the familiar hallway that her and Vin’s room lay in. Torches, lit by magical, cool fire, cast a dim glow through the halls in their darkened ‘night-time’ setting. In the dancing glow, shadows flickered through the hall, caused by the stuffed forms of magical beasts that stood as silent sentries.

    Raven slipped past the enormous spread wings of a juvenile roc, long feathers arcing over the doorway to her room. She walked up to it, pulling out her key, before suddenly halting.

    She heard a noise inside... a scraping, a bump, as if someone tripped over something and nearly fell.

    Gods... they’re already here? her mind panicked. She listened carefully, but heard no other noise.

    Someone is in there, she still thought, her body tensing, her muscles coiling their energy. Gingerly she reached for the door handle, and slowly turned it. Once it was turned full way, carefully, and slowly, she slid the door open, her eyes searching gloom inside.

    At first, she saw nothing, but within seconds, she saw a low hump, on the far side of her bed, close to Vintressa’s. Thankful that one of the few spells she had memorized could solve a situation like this, she snarled, “Oklaton Ley!”

    Immediately the room began to glow with an otherworldly light, which quickly grew as bright as the daytime sunshine. The shape ducked away as soon as she talked, beyond her sight.

    They’re laying between the beds, she realized. Glancing to her left, she saw her nagiaka, hanging from the doorknob just within her reach. Her hand lashed out quickly, grabbing its handle and pulling its black leather form into her grasp, as she willed the polymorphing spell off of herself. For all the disguise of being a gnome could help, she would have much rather had her human muscles swinging around her human-size nagaika.

    “Come out!” she snapped, letting the long whip uncoil, glass shards glinting bright along its darkened length. Putting all the courage she could in her legs, she started to walk forward. What if it is an Erelion assassin?

    Then I must fight him,
    her mind reflected grimly. Her hands tensed on the grip of the whip more, just before she heard the stuttering voice.

    “R...Raven? It’s... it’s just me,” a young man’s head popped above the side of her bed. His hair was jet black, and his eyes were an unusual shade of green, with vertical slits for pupils instead of round ones. Faintly, on his light complexed skin, were traces of darker patterns, like those of a tabaxi or tiger. His skin at present was an embarrassed shade of red, bare from the waist up.

    “Royukgan!” Raven snapped, shutting the door quickly, “What are you doing in our room!” Her body wanted to give an immense sigh of relief, but she forced herself to keep an edge of anger in her voice. For all Royukgan being Vin’s love interest, he wasn’t supposed to be here.

    “Well,” the young man sheepishly rose, a hand scratching the back of his head awkwardly, “Vinny told me that she would... um... well... you know...”

    Raven’s crossing of her arms and glare told the boy she didn’t know.

    “ well... meet me back here, when she got back from the... um...ball.” He took a big breath, “You know? And I... well... I... um... was going to,” he stammered onward.
    Raven finally raised her hand, not wanting to know any more details of any plans that were now undoubtedly foiled.

    “Well, I’m sad to say Vintressa won’t be back here tonight, or for a while,” Raven sighed. She turned and started gathering the required items, and searching for her own traveling clothes.

    “Why? Is she in trouble? Did something happen?” the boy from Ak Konylu asked, now fully sitting on Raven’s bed, eyes wide in concern. Raven spun back around.

    “You don’t want to know,” she said simply, before turning back to her work. For a split second, the strangest thought entered her head; whether Valaron would have liked to see her in her normal traveling outfit, or the dark gray, nearly black set of clothing her father had gotten her for her birthday... “just in case you need to sneak around somewhere,” he had grinned at her.

    Why are you worrying over whether Valaron would like it! her mind suddenly snapped, The dark one is good for sneaking, and you might need that! she thought, grabbing the set of trousers, tunic and padding.

    “Yes, I want to know,” Royukgan’s voice broke her thoughts again. “Is she in trouble? Is there any way I can help?”

    “Do you really want to know?” Raven turned around again and looked at him. He shook his head yes vigorously.

    Can I trust him? Raven asked herself. He claims he was hiding in here to meet Vin after the ball. How do I know that’s not just a cover story?

    But why would House Erelion recruit the son of foreign royalty to help them?
    another part of Raven’s mind asked. House Erelion hates the ‘mongrels’ viciously, more than most of the other houses! They’d probably send assassins after him, not...

    If they’re watching Vinny, Val and me... they’re watching him too!
    At that realization, she sighed. I need to tell him.

    She never heard the noises outside of the room door.

    “Royukgan, stay sitting there... this is kind of a long story,” Raven started, “and you have to promise me you’ll-“

    The noise of the door crashing in drowned out any thought to the rest of her words.

    Raven’s initial reaction to the noise was shock. She was standing, facing away from the door, her nagiaka on the bed, too far away to be of any good. She started to spin, but her reactions seemed so slow. She had a moment to look up, and see a human face, contorted in a look of terrible calm, a dagger in his hand. The hand and arm started moving in a terrifying arc, to launch the dagger straight at her heart...

    Something metallic flashed by her eyes, and there was a dull thwack, as metal sliced into flesh. The face of the man before her twisted in a look of pain, his eyes screaming the call a man’s soul screeches as he dies. Whatever scream that was meant to come from his lips died as a gurgle, gushing from the three pronged blade imbedded in his throat.

    Raven’s mind was puzzled as to what had just happened, but her instincts impelled her towards the bed, her hands grasping the handle of the long, vicious whip. Two more faces came into view, daggers in their hands as well. Even as her mind was just realizing that Royukgan was the only one that could’ve thrown the wicked looking blade into the throat of the first assassin, her wrists snapped around hard, and a low roar rose in the air as the nagaika slashed forward.

    Off of the walls of the room echoed a devastating craaack as Raven snapped the whip back. Its glass studded shards neatly wrapped around the throat of the next assassin, slashing hard and deep when she snapped the weapon back. His throat shredded into ribbons of flesh, the second assassin fell, gurgling.

    Raven brought the nagiaka back. But things seemed to move so slowly again. The last assassin’s dagger was up, and in the back of her mind she knew she would not be able to bring the nagiaka around to attack him in time. Her mind registered Royukgan’s screams for her to duck, to move, but her feet remained planted in the floor, unmoving. The assassin’s arm moved back, ready for release...

    And suddenly his entire form froze... as if he was made of solid stone, unable to move.

    A hand reached the would-be assassin’s shoulder, and shoved it aside. The man’s figure hit the wall, and fell awkwardly to the ground, arm still back in the same pose, body rigidly in the same position. The wizened face of Aegrifyr suddenly appeared in the ruins of the doorway.

    “Raven! Royukgan! Come with me!” the nominal professor of Compulsions and Enchantments yelled. “There isn’t much time!”

    “I... had no idea you had such fast reflexes, Royukgan,” Raven breathed easier a few minutes later. His speed and reflexes were far faster than someone who was nothing more than a princeling student of wizardry should have... not to mention that his accuracy with that three pronged blade was downright frightening.

    She and the foreign prince walked side by side behind Aegrifyr, who trailed the still held assassin in midair behind him.

    “I... never really wanted to be a wizard,” the boy said quietly. “I was here mainly for diplomatic reasons, an attempt to show that not all of us ‘mongrels’ are the beasts and fiends you people think we are,” he smiled distantly. In a much quieter voice, that Raven could only barely hear, he added, “and now I have a reason to stay.”

    “What?” Raven asked, eyebrows raised.

    “Nothing,” the prince replied, before producing that wicked looking blade again. “And to answer the next question you had coming, this is a sai.” He handed it to her as the three continued to tramp through the quiet halls and corridors. Now that she had a closer look at it, she realized its center prong was longer than the two on the sides.

    “You can use it to catch other people’s weapons, and wrench it from their hands, in the gaps between the prongs. And, in a pinch, it can be thrown to good effect,” he gave a grin.

    “And you’re well versed in this weapon?” Its ingenious... I should definitely tell Val about this little thing later on...

    “All in my family are. It’s a very good weapon to keep on hand in self-defense, just in case someone manages to break through bodyguards... or unexpectedly attacks you, as in what happened this night.”

    “Keep quiet!” Aegrifyr hissed from in front, and both teens suddenly filled the air with absolute silence. “There might be more of his friends!” The wizard then turned to the man, his form still frozen poised to strike, “Shortly, my friend, you will tell me what is happening!”

  7. #7
    “Where is she?” Vintressa asked her brother worriedly. “What can be keeping her so long?” She started pacing, yet again. Before the night was out, Valaron was sure his sister would wear ruts into the floor of his room.

    “Maybe she got held up by someone,” Valaron offered hopefully. Maybe she got distracted... maybe she had to shed some people following her...

    “Maybe she got caught,” Vintressa uttered in a frightened voice. If that is the case... they may have struck her down... and maybe struck our parents down as well! Vintressa shuddered. They had locked themselves up in Valaron’s room for some time; the large, ornate clock on one wall of his room spoke that it was two hours till midnight.

    “Don’t talk like that Vin,” Valaron chided, even as his own heart had many of the same misgivings. “She got away... I know she did,” Val growled, rising to his own feet. She’s too smart! And if she got her hands on that nasty whip Vin described... there’s no way they could take her out! I just know it!

    Vin’s mind normally might have hung on Val’s firm statement as a sign of something, but instead, she was too worried about her friend and her family to focus on such little things. Instead, her eyes looked about the room intently.

    “Do you have a rapier in here? Or a dagger?” Vintressa asked, her voice losing its fear and filling with determination. She went to one corner of the room which had a drawer, filled with antique swords that Valaron had collected to admire.

    “Wait,” Val called, before rushing to his sister’s side. Normally it would have been to either chide her for disturbing his valuables, or to lecture her on the history of a blade, but this day he immediately pulled open the third drawer from the top, and reached inside. Within a few seconds, a rose colored blade appeared as he pulled Heart’s Rose from what was intended as its final resting place.

    “That’s... ‘Uncle’ Shaun’s sword!” Vin started, grasping the blade revertly, her eyes wide.

    “He went and bought himself a more powerful one... it dances around if he lets go of it. He had no use for this one, and his son didn’t want it. So he gave it to me to put in my collection about two months ago.”

    Vintressa only half listened to her brother, instead she held the blade out at arms length, feeling its heft and balance in her arm. Rather cautiously, she gave an initial swing, letting her mind and arms adjust to the blade they first became familiar with. After feeling the first swing, she brought the blade around, and swung again, and again. Harder and faster each swing came, as she allowed the momentum of the previous slash to carry her into the next one. The pink blade danced through the air, singing the lovely swishing sound of a rapier slicing about. Finally, she settled in, and from memory, conducted a series of parries, thrusts and slashes she had practiced every day since her ‘Uncle’ had shown them to her.

    When the last slash finished and she gripped the blade firmly, pointed out at arm’s length, Vintressa heard a little gasp beside her. She turned, and gave a brief grin to her brother’s mouth agape.

    “Close your mouth, Val, it’s impolite,” the quipped. Glancing down at the blade, she added, “It’s got the same balance it had when I was learning with it, though this dress still gets in the way.” She gave a grunt of disapproval, before grabbing the sleeves, and ripping them off. “That’s better.”

    “Vin... I... um...”

    “Are impressed?” she finished his statement, before reaching into the drawer and pulling out the relevant scabbard as weell. “Two years of practice. I’m surprised mom never told you. I know I intended it to be a surprise, otherwise you would have accused me of trying to copy you!”

    “What, exactly, are you planning on doing with that blade?” her brother asked guardedly.

    “Well,” Vin sighed, “seeing that I am guessing they have caught and hurt poor Raven, this needs to end now. I am going to find mom or dad, whichever does not have Hemmel with them, and alert them. Then, we take out Hemmel.” The last part was delivered in a deadpan, the voice Vintressa took when she was utterly determined to see something through. She inherited that stubbornness from her mother.

    “So you’re going to take on Hemmel, with no armor, and only a rapier?” Valaron raised an eyebrow, before sliding the open door shut. “My, and they say I inherited mom’s tendency for recklessness.” He started opening the drawer below it.

    “It’s not reckless as long as you come with! The two of us can hold him off long enough that someone should be able to respond!” Vintressa replied in the same deadpan, “Or have you gotten lax in practicing with your swordplay?” The final part was delivered with a slight smirk... a challenge.

    “No, I haven’t,” Val replied gruffly, pulling out a rather large, dull greenish-gray sword. Gently he hefted the blade upwards, closing his eyes, feeling its weight. He flipped the sword so it rested on his outstretched plams, and looked at the chips along its top, tiny bits of chitin from the armored hide of a monstrous spider still lodged in the small chips along its upper length. “Father’s old blade will do.”

    “Now, we can’t just tramp through the palace with weapons drawn,” Vintressa added, seeing the massive side of the bastard sword Val held in his hands. “We need subtlety.” She slipped the rapier scabbard around her waist, and the blade into its holding area. “I can cover my blade with a little short lived magic... can you do the same or have you-“

    Valaron turned, and the large sword that was in his hands seemed to have disappeared, as did the scabbard around his waist. “There are people other than you that have mastered the ability to change one’s appearance,” Val smiled. “Of course, I can’t pull Raven’s idea and turn myself into a gnome. Though after we take care of Hemmel... assuming we can,” Val’s smile vanished, and his voice became serious, “what do we do then? Of course we’ll go after House Erelion, but what about the Fire Stone? If its out there...”

    “I haven’t planned that far ahead Val,” Vintressa confessed. “I’m playing this... as Aunt Tess would say, ‘by ear.’”

    Raven, Royukgan and Aegrifyr, after some ten minutes of traversing the depths of the Academy, finally reached the wizard’s personal office and laboratory... a view that caused both Raven and Royukgan to give a slight gasp of wonder.

    The room, on ground level, was cavernous in height, even as its floor area was rather small. Enormously tall bookcases, filled with tomes and writings, rose some twenty feet into the air, touching the room’s ceiling. Seemingly hanging in mid-air were numerous specimens of strange animals that neither youth had seen before. Dark torchlight gave the entire room an eerie glow.

    “Here you are,” Aegrifyr said as with the snap of his fingers, the would-be assassin found himself dropped to the ground. The wizard then pried the dagger from the man’s immobile hands, and proceeded to bind him up with simple rope. When he looked up and saw the two youths questioning looks at his using simple rope to restrain the man, Aegrifyr gave them a smile.

    “Its always good to have a non-magical backup,” he spoke. He then turned to a case laying on the floor nearby. Both Raven and Royukgan crowded close as he opened it, wanting to see the undoubted wonders inside.

    All manners of spell components were inside this simple wooden box, ranigng from roc feathers, newt eyes, and other animal appendanges. Aegrifyr’s hand wandered around for a bit, before setting on the tongue of a salamander, and some honey oil. The wizard then gave a grunt of satisfaction, and turned back to the prisoner.

    “You will shortly, tell me everything you know,” he said to the held man, as he dipped the tongue in the oil, and muttered a few simple words. The twisting magic of enchantment was not as visible or spectacular as the spell Vin used earlier, but transmutation spells were usually visual in nature. Despite not being able to see it, Raven and Royukgan, with their tenative young links to the world of magic, could sense the sinews of the planes of magic flowing from the concoction in Aegrifyr’s hands and into the man’s mouth.

    “Tell me, good sir, about yourself, your employers, and everyone you know that seeks the same results as your fellow assassins,” the wizard said gruffly. A gentle wave of the wizard’s hand released him from the holding spell that had kept him unable to move.

    The man sputtered briefly at his freedom, his eyes all the while on the wizard. At first, they were wide with defiance, but it took only a few seconds for the magic to seep into the man’s will to resist, sapping it of all strength. His voice, cracked and weak, finally spoke out.

    “My... name is Philberon Ulmis,” the man began. “I work for the Baron Darien, of House Erelion,” he started. He then began listing the names of his two, less fortunate compatriots. He blurted out that they had been instructed to follow Raven, and should the situation look right, kill her quietly.

    As he spoke, Aegrifyr turned to Raven. “Do you two know any more than this? Why they were after you?” he said quietly, clearly dissatisfied with the man’s mere regurgitation of names and mission. He wanted to know why they wanted to kill her. It was serious business to him if one of his students was threatened... and while Raven was not the most gifted of his pupils, she was one of his pupils!

    “Yes,” Raven bowed her head. “House Erelion is currently threatening the Vintressa. I,” she looked at Royukgan, watching his mouth open in shock and rage, “came back to fetch Vintressa’s equipment. They...”

    “...were following you. I saw them trailing a small gnome I had not seen before, hence me stopping you. I followed you upstairs, remaining invisible. They almost got past me... fortunately you all seemed very capable of defending yourselves with non-magical means,” the wizard said dryly. He held a wrinkled hand to his beard, and stroked it in thought.

    “Well, that explains why they were after you. And we can now raise the alarm. After all, we can’t have hooligans running about threatening one of my students, especially the one that’s the Emperor’s daughter,” he started out, only to find Raven’s hand clasped around his arm like a vise.

    “No! Don’t!” she yelped, before swallowing the gulp that filled her throat. Seeing her teacher’s look of confusion, she stuttered for a few moments before blurting out, “they have assassins in place close to...”

    Tell him! part of her mind yelled. He is a powerful mage! He can help immensely!

    But Vintressa said it was a security risk if anyone knew an assassin has gotten so close to the Emperor and Empress! another part of her mind remembered. For a second or two, she stuttered in confusion.

    “...the Emperor!” she finally told the truth. “They told us they would kill His Majesty if we tried to warn anyone,” her voice cracked slightly, and her eyes became pregnant with tears. I just told someone! If they find out, they’ll kill Uncle Luke and Aunt Siabrey!

    The wizard saw her face, and gently put a hand close to it. His eyes reflected understanding at her worry and fear, and he quietly started to shush her as a muffled cry rose from her frightened lips.

    “No one will know, sshh,” he said quietly, wrapping his arms around her in a fatherly fashion, even as his own mind grew fearful of the information he had just learned. Normally, mere academics such as himself stayed out of Imperial politics... but it was very apparent that he’d been sucked in far deeper than he thought. Thinking ahead, he looked over her shoulder to the still wide eyed Royukgan, his voice appearing in the boy’s head.

    ”Go hide the other two bodies in their room securely. They must not be discovered. I shall remove them at a later date. Go!” his eyes flashed towards the door.

    Royukgan ran.

    Empress Siabrey Sipner-Caladron was in a less than pleasant mood. The ball supposedly for her son was still an hour from ending, and yet neither Valaron nor Vintressa, the two socialites that were supposed to grace the rest with their presence, were nowhere in sight.

    When I see that boy, I’m going to have to have another long talk with him about responsibility, she sighed as she came up more of the ornately decorated halls and alcoves of the palace. I can’t blame him for not liking those affairs... but he NEEDS to be there, at the very least to keep the nobility happy!

    It required sacrifice, to be sure. Siabrey, at this moment, would have much preferred her old traveling outfit, her simple tunic and jerkins, to the costume she felt was overly ornate. She had never really liked dresses, and the only items of such clothing she enjoyed were ones her dear husband bought for her. Even then, she liked them more because they were gifts from Lucius, not because they were dresses.

    Yet here she was, in the 17th year of her reign, still wearing dresses... albeit ones that were rather loose and allowed her the freedom of movement her fighter muscles were used to. The nobles had raised too much of a stink for her to not wear one. She’d given in, and compromised to keep the peace. That’s what being Empress, and being Crown Prince, is about, it seems. Keeping the damn peace, her mind growled.

    ”He is being independent minded, Siabrey,” a gentle voice in her head reminded her, and she instinctively ran her hand along the rough, sandhog skin of her katana, Kelir. ”I do remember you were that way once... sometimes I think your mother let you start practicing with me to focus your independent spirit!” the sword added.

    ”Well, its not like he doesn’t get to practice with sword and magic to focus HIM,” Siabrey rejoined mentally. It had taken practice, but a few years of people staring at her funny when she spoke aloud to her blade had taught her to merely mentally relay her words to it.

    ”True,” the blade answered in a laughing voice, ”Talk to him about it... you are reasonable at times, and he is your blood...”

    Siabrey gave a mental eyeroll at the sword’s slight critique of her personality, and continued her march down the corridors to her son’s room. Yes, he’ll be reasonable because it is his mother that will be talking to him about this. If I can’t fix that idea in his head, maybe he’ll have to talk to Luke again...

    As she walked, she felt footfalls behind her. A gentle turn of her head revealed the dark mop of hair that marked the family’s official manservant, Hemmel.

    “Ah... Hemmel,” she said with little warmth in her voice. She was too focused on her future words to Valaron. She motioned him to come alongside, and despite her shorter height, Hemmel had to adopt a brisk walk to keep up with her strides.

    “Majesty,” he gave a partial bow while on the move.

    “I’m just on my way to give Val another lecture on responsibility. It seems he skipped the latter part of the ball, despite my urgings!” she growled, her eyes flashing towards him. She caught a slight change in his face when she mentioned the ball, and mentally growled again. Your job, Hemmel, was to watch him there. You said he was going to stay when we saw him up on the balcony, but he skipped. I know he’s a close friend of yours, but... she sighed.

    “I am terribly sorry, Majesty,” Hemmel replied, seemingly flustered. “I thought for sure that he would remain at the ball and properly entertain guests until the end.” Siabrey wasn’t sure, but something in his voice told her he was sure of the exact opposite.

    “Listen,” she stopped, turning to face the servant, “I know you’re close to Val. That’s why I asked you to urge him to stay and make sure he did!” She gave another exasperated sigh. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t fire you over something like this. Val likes you too much. But I would appreciate you watching him more carefully when you’re asked to.” Siabrey had never adopted a patronizing tone with the servants, and her matter-of-fact method of talking and treating them had earned her the respect and devotion of the vast majority of the palace servants.

    “I will, Majesty,” Hemmel replied. And she detected it again, another slight halt in his voice. Why does he have that little halt? Maybe something is wrong with him today... he doesn’t usually halt like that when replying. She looked at his body, and saw that he was in a state of what looked to be forced relaxation... his muscles were secretly tensed up.

    He’s nervous! He thinks he’s in major trouble! her mind realized, and she gave him a genuine smile when they started moving again.

    “Hemmel, you are a good manservant. Just try to listen to us more carefully than Val sometimes, okay?” she smiled, and she saw him relax slightly at her statement.

    The pair rounded one of the innumerable corners in the immense palace, and Siabrey’s surprised eyes suddenly found the equally surprised eyes of Valaron and Vintressa, both stopped in mid-stride towards the two.

    By her children’s face, Siabrey immediately knew something was not right. Their eyes were wide with seeming horror and terror... far more than they should have been if it had merely been disobedient children seeing their mother. Her hand instinctively slid from resting on Kelir’s pommel to slightly gripping the sword’s hilt.

    ”Something is wrong, Siabrey! Something is very wrong!” Kelir mentally shouted.

  8. #8
    Valaron was speechless in terror. There was his mother, side by side with her assassin! And by the confused look on her face, she had no idea what danger she was in!

    Think Val! Think! How can you tell her something is wrong without letting Hemmel know? Think! the young prince’s mind began to repeat urgently. He didn’t have to see his sister to know her mind was stuck on the same problem. As their minds tried to think a way out of the seemingly impossible situation, they merely stood there, mouths slightly agape. The air from a nearby window blew the cool air of night in upon their faces.

    Siabrey’s eyes watched as her two children flicked their eyes between herself and Hemmel, abject terror in their eyes. Her grip on Kelir tightened slightly, and she started forward, her mind netering the same hypersensitive mode she felt when something was amiss; when danger was about. It was her old fighter senses flowing back, and she noted Hemmel was just behind her as she went forward.

    “Valaron, Vintressa? What is it?” she asked, her voice filled with concern. ”You’re right, Kelir... something is very wrong!” Her own sight could see the ghostly glowing shape of magic hovering over both of her children, concentrated most along their waists, and places running along each of their left hips and legs.

    As if a sword is being magically covered... her mind thought. She had seen the tactic many times before... it was easy to do, and easy for her magical sight to spot. It was all the more apparent because both of her children had their hands hovering along the seemingly empty air along their thighs... as if they were gripping the hilt of a sword...

    Vintressa heard her mother’s voice, but her own was not able to respond, her fear was so great. Her eyes flashed towards Hemmel, just behind her mother. It did not take a mage to read the cold steel in the man’s eyes, boring in directly on Vintressa’s. Most people reflected something about their internal thoughts through their eyes... yet this man’s gray eyes were as a steel wall, and she could see nothing within his soul. Or indeed, if he had one. That alone sent shivers down Vintressa’s spine.

    She glanced over towards her brother, and while his right hand rested on what would have been the hilt of his sword, she could see his left hand was behind him, fingers splayed wide. Suddenly, he closed his thumb with his palm, then his pinkie.

    He’s counting down! she realized, her own grip on her sword tightening. Her eyes flashed back to Hemmel.

    Her ‘uncle,’ when giving her lessons, had told her that every creature that fights with blades has a ‘moment of decision,’ a specific point and time when they chose to attack. And this moment is reflected differently in the body reactions or face of each and every person. Some get a slight crinkle in their brow, some take a deep breath, some have a slight twitch in their pinkie. Often it was too fast to be consciously registered.

    She never knew what Hemmel’s ‘moment marker’ was, all she knew was that she saw, and she started drawing her own blade. The world seemed to slow down, grinding to a crawl. Her own blade seemed to inch out of its scabbard, as she felt her mouth open in a warning cry to her mother. Simultaneously, she watched in terrified horror as Hemmel’s right arm flashed upward, toward the base of the Empress’ neck...

    Siabrey had only an instant’s warning from Vintressa that something was wrong with Hemmel. Her instincts, her reflexes, her 30 years of training with a blade took over, and Kelir flashed out of his scabbard. Her mind clicked that the warning was about Hemmel, and her body started to spin as her blade was drawing, increasing the distance between her percieved threat and herself.

    Her spin did not come fast enough to completely avoid a hit, and she felt her shoulder blade crack and break as a terrifying fist slammed into it with the force of a massive warhammer. The punch continued, and she felt her collarbone rattle to its core, and the end of her upper arm bone break apart under the force. Kelir, which had been flying out of his scabbard, sailed out of his scabbard, and flew straight upward as the Empress now fell away, part from the force of the blow, part from her own reflex.

    As she fell, her eyes caught a glimpse of the guards in the hallway, already reacting, already drawing their blades and dashing towards her. Even as she landed on her shattered shoulder and arm with a sickening thud, her mind thought of only one thing. Her children. Kelir clattered the ground by her side, yet out of reach of her broken body.

    Valaron watched in shocked disbelief as his mother’s blade, the famed katana, cartwheeled through the air, as her wounded form crumpled to the ground. The world for him seemed to enter another dimension, where everything was slowed. He felt his mouth opening, screaming his mother’s name, as his legs started moving him towards her.

    Vintressa’s pink rapier was finally out, and her instinct and training took over. She knew her mother had been hit, and she knew that the Empress was now vulnerable. One thought dominated her young mind... to defend her mother as best she could. Heart’s Rose was now extended, in perfect fencing form, its tip hovering only a foot from the chest of Hemmel, her eyes dancing with rage.

    The assassin’s eyes only focused on the fallen Empress for a moment more, before flicking towards the new threat. As Vintressa’s blade slashed forward, the assassin sidestepped the blow. Reaching out with one hand, he grabbed the hilt of the pink rapier as she lunged past. A slight push forced her into a greater forward momentum than she expected, and his eyes coldly watched the Princess as she tumbled forward to the ground.

    The assassin then calmly reached into his breast-pocket, even as ten guardsmen now were running towards him, shouting. Even as the Princess gave a cry as she landed roughly on her shoulder, Heart’s Rose clattering out of her grasp. From his clothing he withdrew a shiny, metallic object, long and thin... a vicious looking dagger with two prongs.

    The Empress, in frightful pain, saw this through lidded eyes. As his hand moved upwards to form an arc, her mind realized what the object was intended for. Despite her shattered shoulder, some part of her body managed to conjure up the strength, the will, to tense her muscles, ready her to move. She took in a ragged breath, and felt a horrible burning, cutting in her chest. Instead of moving, she coughed, and blood spattered out, as the man’s arm began its downward arc...

    ”Valaron!” a voice echoed in the prince’s head as he watched the man pull out the metal shape, obviously intended for killing. ”Use me!”

    The Prince had heard the voice of his mother’s sword before... indeed, many years ago, he had listened to the sword’s descriptions of his mother’s exploits. As he dashed forward, the boy reached instinctively for the sandhog hilt of the blade, and as the assassin’s arc started its deadly downward march, Valaron’s fingers found their grip.

    ”Up!” the prince heard in his head, and Val brought the blade upward, just as the dagger of doom left Hemmel’s hand. In the slowed world full of adrenaline, Valaron could swear he saw the dagger’s flight, and he also thought he could adjust Kelir’s upward path slightly.

    The dagger seemed to cross the arc Kelir was cutting, until at the last moment, the hilt of the dagger was sliced into by the blade of Kelir. A metallic clang! echoed as the larger, heavier katana slammed into the dagger, sending it cartwheeling above and to the left of its former path. Another dull thwack echoed in the air, as the two pronged dagger slammed deep into the wall... merely inches away from Siabrey’s ear.

    ”Right cut!” came hard into Valaron’s head, and her slashed his blade to the right without thinking. Only then did he feel the sharp slam of something hitting the sword, realized that a likely deadly kick from the assassin, directed at him, was blocked by the flat of Kelir’s blade.

    Instinctively, the prince brought the sword back down, into a low guard position, his eyes now locked with Hemmel’s. This way, Val knew he could either block or slash as needed. It was now that he felt a slight warmth on his hands, and realized that all of this time, Kelir’s flames were licking up and down the blade.

    Hemmel’s eyes seemed to lock on the prince, even as a fist flashed up as the nearest guard approached, crushing in his face. The assassin let out a screeching noise, and in a flurry of leg sweeps, punches and kicks, the guards that approached were down around him, battered and broken. His eyes then refocused on the boy, their steel gray gleaming.

    “You are very brave, little prince,” he said quietly, “but very foolish! I have watched you train for five years,” Hemmel continued, just beyond the reach of Kelir in Valaron’s hands, “I know your tricks, your speed! You cannot hope to defeat me!”

    Suddenly, the assassin’s face took on a twist of pain, as a scream of another kind pierced the air. Valaron’s eyes refocused, and he saw a thin, pink blade tearing through the front of Hemmel’s leg. Behind it, Vintressa’s eyes flashed with a terrifying fire, as she pulled Heart’s Rose out, and started to rise, keeping the sword between her and the assassin.

    To their utter amazement, Hemmel spun, using his injured leg as a pivot, and delivered a furious kick that knocked Heart’s Rose from Vintressa’s hands. As Val lunged forward with Kelir, Hemmel once again sidestepped the blow, and the Prince tumbled onto his sister in a hopeless pile.

    As the shouts of guards rose in their ears, cries of confusion, anger and fear thundering up and down the halls of the palace, Valaron and Vintressa both cringed, waiting for the furious crack that would signal their mother’s end, and the same noise imprinting the black void of death upon themselves. Instead, they merely heard a footstep, and a slight whoosh of air.

    Rough hands grabbed both of them, and their eyes saw the faces of men clad in the uniforms and armor of Imperial Guardsmen looking at them worriedly.

    “Are you hurt!?” the one looking directly at both of them asked. Both shook their heads no, and the two quickly scrambled to their feet.

    “Where is he!?” Valaron snarled, Kelir in hand, murder in his eyes. As his eyes feverishly searched the halls, it was his sister’s voice that caught his attention.

    “Mother!” she screamed, causing Valaron to turn.

    The Empress was now sitting, propped up along the wall. Her eyes were open, but it was apparent that remaining conscious was taking all of her strength. She coughed again, and a little more blood trickled from her mouth.

    “She has bone fragments in her lungs,” one of the guardsmen said excitedly, “fetch a healer!” he barked, and quickly guardsmen were scurrying about. The two children were immediately by their mother’s side, Valaron holding her uninjured hand, and Vintressa putting a hand behind her head.

    “Mom?” Val asked, his own voice shaking.

    Siabrey, with a great deal of effort, turned her head to her two children, and smiled... something more grotesque than reassuring in some ways.

    “Do not worry about me,” she whispered, “I have felt worse,” she added with some sarcasm. She gave a slight wince at the guardsmen shifting her about slightly, trying to make her comfortable until healers could arrive. Seeing that her despite her sarcasm fear and terror were on her children’s faces, she gave a slight, shuddering sigh.

    “I saw both of you,” she whispered again, her good hand clasping Valaron’s tightly. “Very... im...impressive,” she slurred out slowly, another weak smile on her lips.

    “Mom!” Valaron was crying by this point, with Vintressa very close to the same.

    The Crown Prince and Princess sat, backs rigidly straight, on a divan outside of the Empress’ Quarters. Their eyes stared at distant points, focusing on the events of only a few hours prior, in both of their minds, trying to find out ways that they could have done things better.

    “What happened to mommy again?” little Lucius, barely five asked. Beside him, Jasmine, six, sat cross-armed, her eyes asking the same question.

    “A bad man tried to hurt mommy. She’ll be fine,” Valaron said hopefully. The two younger siblings were far too young to understand the nature of politics, or why someone would want to hurt their mother, other than that he was a ‘bad’ man. Part of Valaron wished he was that young, and didn’t know what he now knew.

    “Did the bad man get caught?” the little Lucius asked.

    “Not yet. He jumped out of a window,” Valaron repeated what the guardsmen had told him had happened. “He climbed down the side of the building. But pappa is going to have people look for him, ok? You don’t need to worry about him,” Valaron added. To his relief, his younger brother accepted the apology as fact, and went back to playing with his wooden toy dragon.

    Val then felt an arm snake around his shoulder, and leaned into Vintressa’s embrace... a hug he desperately needed as he looked back towards the massive gilt doors that normally marked where his mother could be found sharpening her sword, reading up on Imperial law, or playing with the younger two kids.

    Val had watched painfully as guardsmen and healers had carried her into the room and laid her on her bed. He watched fearfully as his father rushed in, worry in the Emperor’s eyes.

    Suddenly, the doors to the Empress’ Chambers flew open, and a very worn, tired look Lucius V, Emperor of the Holy Santoric Empire, stepped out. And for the moment, he laid aside his Imperial mantle, for the one of a father.

    “Your mother will be fine, they say” he said as the doors were closed behind him, before almost collapsing onto the divan next to his two children. A tear ran down his face, as he sighed again, “She’ll be fine, thank the gods.”

    Valaron and Vintressa responded with a tearful hug of their father, and his strong hands grasped and caressed the back of both of their heads. He laid a gentle kiss on each of their foreheads, and whispered quietly, “You two saved your mother’s life. You know that?”

    Vintressa gave a tearful nod, and Luke gave them a heart-breaking smile.

    “And they’ve relayed to the information about this Fire Stone. And we’ll figure out what to do with that tomorrow, after your mother’s sedation wears off,” Luke said quietly. “And I have instructed people to go to the Academy and look for Raven... I have no doubt she’ll be found safe and sound,” Luke smiled hopefully to his two worried and frightened children.

    And, if I have my wish, the Emperor’s mind darkly fumed, House Erelion, to the last servant, shall not see another midsummer’s night!

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    So ends the first part of the story. I'm going on vacation for a few days, so there will not be an update until the middle of next week at the earliest. I promise I'll be back to add more to the story!
    Last edited by Emperor Valerian; Friday, 11th June, 2004 at 07:36 AM.

  9. #9
    Most of the great noble houses in the Empire held various homes throughout the realm. Usually there was at least one major manor in their official lands, and perhaps others scattered about. But every noble family that considered itself ‘important’ or ‘influential’ had at least one mansion in the capital, Iskeldrun.

    House Erelion, being former Dukes, were no exception. Even after the Duke’s failed coup against the Emperor, the family itself retained their manor, ‘The Crystal Mansion,’ so named for the renowned stain-glassed windows that adorned its ornate halls.

    Eyrna Erelion was fast asleep, her mind carousing in dreams of her father back in the old days, before the family’s fall from grace. The old Duke used to take her on horseback rides through the orchard groves near their castle estate, and in her dreamworld, she could still taste the apples, and pluck ripe oranges from their trees.

    She had always been a very alert girl, and many times the slightest of noises would rouse her. And this night, some noise did just that, rudely cutting short her dream.

    “Simeon?” she hissed quietly, expecting her brother to be somewhere in the shadows. “Is that you?”

    She heard a slight creak, a noise anyone else might have dismissed as the sounds of a house settling. Instead she snapped upright with a shout for her guards.

    “Sh! It’s only me, Hemmel!” a voice rasped painfully from the shadows. A few seconds later, the ghostly pale face of their planted assassin, whom she hadn’t seen in five years, slipped out of the darkness.

    “Hemmel?” Eyrna’s soprano asked, confusion in her voice. Someone is very very wrong… There are no alarms coming from the Imperial Palace! If Hemmel succeeded, he wouldn’t be here unless the palace alarms had been raised…

    “My Lady,” the ghostly pale face bowed slightly, “Rouse your brother! You haven’t much time! Fly!”

    “Hemmel! What happened!?” Eyrna asked, already out of her bed and throwing necessities into a saddlebag she kept ready in her room. How could you have failed! You’re an expert with unarmed combat! You stalked your prey for five entire years! How?!

    The assassin’s response was to grab her by the shoulders, and give her a firm shake. “Do not ask questions, just get out of the city as quickly as you can! I must get to Kulloden as soon as possible! I fear all of our plans may have gone awry, and we need to salvage as much as we can!”

    “But-“ Eyrna started before Hemmel cut her off again.

    “Milady! You may be as intelligent and bright as my master claims, but you don’t realize whats happened! The Emperor lives, and even now his guards are on the streets! I have no doubt their vile brood of children has told them of our search for the Fire Stone… so we must get what we can!”

    A slam signaled Simeon bursting into the room, and the noise and shouts of guards dashing about the barricade the mansion echoed into the bedroom.

    “What is all of this mess about?” the young man snapped angrily. “Its two hours after midnight, and all sane souls are-“

    “We must flee the city,” Eyrna said quietly, but forcefully, her own saddlebags packed. “Hemmel, I trust you know we have a teleportation chamber in this mansion?” she flashed a predatory grin towards the assassin.

    He smiled back, realizing that his job in Kulloden would be all the easier now.

    Valaron rubbed his eyes, trying to push back the foggy mind that tiredness and a need for sleep kept foisting upon him. He’d been up now for close to 24 hours straight, and would normally have been collapsing into sleep right now… but not now. Not after what happened.

    As he stalked through the halls of the palace, he was closely followed by his sister, their friends Raven and Royukgan, and a bevy of guardsmen that would have made any army tremble. The Emperor was taking no risks with his children.

    “I cannot believe I am being invited to a meeting of the Imperial Council!” Royukgan burst out excitedly. As a prince from a foreign nation, he had hardly expected to be commanded to appear at such an event… even though he was involved with the daughter of the Emperor.

    “Father wants your testimonies on what happened at the Academy… the assassins you found there. Aegrifyr is being called as well, considering he made one of those fools speak as to who his employer was,” Vintressa said matter of factly. The response was far colder than her initial greeting of Royukgan some four hours before. For their sake, it was good that the guardsmen were trained to not speak as to the private lives of their charges. Otherwise, the entire capital would be ringing with scandalous tales of the Princess and the foreign born, ‘mongrel’ prince that had kissed rather too passionately.

    “They sent three assassins after you,” Valaron growled, looking at Raven and Royukgan, “three! Bastards,” the prince spat. “Thankfully that nagawhatnot you have turned out to be pretty good huh,” Val added, before asking hopefully, “Could you teach me how to wield one of those sometime?”

    “Uh… um… sure?” Raven stuttered out, flustered by the invitation. Immediately, she started kicking herself mentally. Raven! Was that cool! Was that suave! No! You’re stuttering in front of him! And… wait! Check your face! she turned to look in a mirror as the group swept by.

    Thank the gods, she sighed in relief. There was no drool on her face.

    “Excellent!” Val pronounced happily, his day now slightly better. “Now, how is the name of that whip said again,” he pointed to Raven’s hip, where it laid coiled in its holster.

    “A nagaika,” she replied, much cooler and more under control. “Its just like a regular whip, save I wouldn’t run my hands over any part of it save the handle,” she gave him a shy smile.

    “Oh gods, Raven!” Vintressa groaned next to her friend. “Stop fawning over him and just kiss him already!”

    “What?!” Raven snapped, her face already deep crimson.

    “Hm?” Val looked up from examining her nagaika. He’d been lost in thought, trying to figure out the tactics for and against such a weapon. “What’d you say, Vin?”

    “Nothing!” Raven spat before her friend could speak. “She said nothing at all!”

    “All I said was… hey, were at the Council Chambers!” Vin started to torture her friend, but stopped at the last minute. She then flashed a look of severity towards Raven and Valaron. “Ok… no more kidding, we’re here.” She received a few parting scowls from the others, but all nodded in understanding.

    The grumbling, grating noise of the enormous doors to the Imperial Council Chambers thundered out, and the twin gilded monstrosities slowly opened. Beyond lay the massive council chambers themselves, immense paintings of the Emperors of old leading armies and dispensing justice covering the ceiling. From the walls hung ancient and priceless tapestries, all lending the room a majestic, if overly ornate, look.

    Inside, there was a ruffling of robes and coats as those eminent personalities present stood at their arrival. Xanadu, the dragon wizard, and now Imperial Chamberlain, bowed graciously as they passed his half elven form. The Imperial Exchequer, Master of Horse, Chancellor, and other luminaries stood in attendance. Their father, clad in snow-white armor with a gilded dragon on his breastplate, sat at one end of the table.

    The seat next to the Emperor, normally holding the small, red eyed form of the Empress, was noticeably absent. She would not be taking her seat in these hallowed halls for another week possibly. The four quietly took places set aside for them, and sat down. For a few moments, there was silence, in honor of the injured Empress, before Lucius began.

    “I’ve called this meeting due to developments in the last day,” he said simply, his voice devoid of any emotion. His green eyes were dull, as if a bit of iron had been put inside of them. “There must be a response to this… outrage,” he settled on a word, his voice still frighteningly even.

    “House Erelion is still one of the largest noble houses in the Empire,” the Master of Horse, General Pietrus Diogenes said slowly. “From their lands near Comnitas they could muster perhaps forty thousand troops if they called up levies.”

    “Diogenes always thinks in military terms,” Vintressa, the politico who was the only one of the four who had previously been in one of these meetings, whispered quietly to the others. “Sometime during this meeting he is going to propose an invasion.” No more than two seconds later, Diogenes did exactly as she predicted.

    “What would Your Majesty like to do with House Erelion?” the Chamberlain asked quietly, his eyes going slightly silver before turning back to their normal lavender color.

    The Emperor’s face went hard, and he closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them again, he gestured towards the four.

    “Tell them what happened,” Lucius said, his voice barely under control as anger roiled within its depths. “Tell them what happened to my own children!

    For two hours, the four spoke of assassins, plots and attempts on their own lives. Raven and Royukgan told of the three assassins that tailed her to the Academy, and tried to kill them. Valaron and Vintressa spoke of Hemmel and his treachery, and of how close the Empress came to death. When they were finished, silence once again filled the hall.

    “Ahem,” Xanadu coughed finally. “If I may say so, Majesty, first we must find out why they want this Fire Stone… and what it does,” the dragon’s voice rumbled. “And the two Erelion children spoke of who?”

    “Ari… our… friend,” Vintressa replied before any of the others could jump in. I do not know if everyone present should know he is a very special creature… the only one of his kind in the world…

    “Ari? Well, it sounds like he might be in danger as well, Majesty.”

    Lucius’ face paled. The prismatic dragon was merely six years old… and while he was wiser than a human child of the same years, he still did not know enough to be left alone. He was vulnerable to persuasion…

    “Now, this Fire Stone,” Lucius changed the topic. Ari would be discussed later, privately with Raven, Valaron and Vintressa. “What do we know of it? It can only be held by someone of our family blood?”

    “Umhm,” Xanadu nodded gruffly. “And it holds some kind of magical power… what I don’t understand…”

  10. #10
    “Move!” Eyrna barked to the footmen hurriedly throwing her own baggage and her brother’s possessions on the roof of their small family carriage. The heiress to the Erelion family line continued to snarl at the coachmen’s attempts to move faster, as the budding light of morning’s glory starting to color the eastern sky.

    It had over six hours since Hemmel’s arrival and warning, as the small teleportation chamber in the mansion needed to be worked up for the assassin to use it. In addition, incriminating documents had to be cleared from the premises. Eyrna’s first instinct was to burn most of them, but unfortunately, man were signed agreements between House Erelion and various other noble families... House Genova, House Elys, and the like... to provide mutual support once the Imperial family was dealt with. Simeon had rightly pointed out that their Uncle, the Baron, would want these to hold over the other houses heads should things possibly work out, despite this major failure.

    It had taken precious time to find all of them, and catalogue them, and even more time to get the requisite messengers rushed out of the city to the estates of the other nobles involved... the last thing desired was to have a messenger caught inside Iskeldrun when the city roused the next morning.

    The Emperor is shrewd, Eyrna thought, an anxious eye watching the shape of her brother on one of the mansion’s side balconies, watching for signs of the city watch or the Imperial Guard. He hasn’t sent anyone dashing about the city until he knows EXACTLY what happened, and who is involved. She gave a slight shudder.

    “We’re ready m’lady,” one of the footmen breathed heavily. “Your baggage and items have been secured.” With a wave of a hand, she told other servants to fetch her brother, and their great race across the Empire to their Uncle’s castle would soon begin.

    Emperor Lucius will come for us... when he is ready, she thought, mounting up on a drab nag of a horse. Nervously, she touched the dagger hidden with the folds of her drab, patched and spotty dress. Should she be discovered, it would be her only personal defense. Her hand then ran down to the saddlebag hanging from the hindquarters of her mount... a patched and worn looking piece of cloth. Inside it was the savior of their line... messages, dispatches and requests… as well as several platinum trade bars.

    As her brother, clad in equally homely clothing, leapt onto a nag as well, the ornate carriage, footmen clinging to its sides of front, clattered out of the mansion’s front gate, and began careening up the street at high speed. Shouts echoed back into the mansion’s courtyard from the angry street vendors and travelers already out and about that had to dodge out of the flying carriage’s path.

    When the Emperor comes, we must be ready... Eyrna and Simeon came out some five minutes later, merging in with a crowd of homely dressed pilgrims snaking through the city. We must have the Fire Stone!

    It was no more than five minutes later when a mass of men, clad in black robes and walking with heads bowed as monks came by the two, going the opposite direction. Eyrna’s sharp eyes picked up the slight bulges along the waist’s of the cloaks, and the slight, momentary glint of steel under their robes.

    Once again, Eyrna thanked her luck that Iskeldrun was a city of over a million and a half souls. In such a vast place, there were many places she and Simeon could hide out, until their mission here within the city was accomplished... until their family could be safeguarded.

    After several sharp twists and turns, the two found themselves in some of the more drab areas of the city. Unlike the Avenue of Marches, with its mansions, pleasantly lined treed gardens, elegant fences and brilliant stonework, the darker corners of Iskeldrun were crowded, dark and dank. Overhead, buildings haphazardly added onto over the centuries seemed to close off the sky as they leaned over the streets that were hardly more than alleys. Stray animals dashed about, and in some places, refuse was openly visible on the sides of the streets.

    Eyrna could see by Simeon’s expression he did not like their present surroundings. While she was not fond of it either, the two had one more person they needed to contact within Iskeldrun before they fled the city. Or trotted out calmly, if all went according to plan.

    The two twins have shown themselves unwilling to cooperate, Eryna grumbled, and we need someone of Caladron blood to carry the Fire Stone for us. If the Prince and Princess are unwilling to help, she thought, as the two drew up in front of a recessed and darkly lit shopfront as morning’s light picked through the slit overhead that marked the sky, perhaps HE can help us find someone more cooperative...

    “...and we still do not know if House Erelion was alone in this,” Xanadu pointedly growled towards Diogenes. “If we move against them alone without finding out the extent of this conspiracy, we might have many bad apples, so to speak, remain in the pie of Imperial politics!”

    “If we strike out at them, swiftly and with immense power, House Erelion will serve as an example!” Diogenes continued to argue. The debate between the chief commander of the Imperial Armies and the Imperial Chamberlain had lasted for a good half an hour. “If House Erelion is wiped out, completely, by the sword, it would serve as a powerful message to any other conspirators left out there that crossing the Imperial family is not...”

    Raven glanced at her friend Vintressa, who was rolling her eyes. When the Princess saw the glance, she gave a sigh.

    “Diogenes only considers force as a solution... never subtlety or diplomacy,” she groaned. “And since it was his security that was breached... the poor fool thinks he has something to prove.” As the general rambled onward, Raven watched her friend’s face grow red with anger, not annoyance.

    “...I say again, we should simply march to Baron Valdemar’s lands, and put it all to the torch! Every farm, every village, his castle...” Diogenes roared onward.

    “For what?!” Vintressa finally snapped. “So that thousands of innocent peasants and artisans, who knew nothing of this plot, can feel the sting of an Imperial blade?”

    The general, his face dark with age, shot a look of contempt at the princess. “I respect your fighting abilities that allowed you to save your mother. But, you have never comm-“

    “Continue,” Lucius’ voice carried over Diogenes’. The Emperor simultaneously fired off a stern look to the general, prompting him to suddenly fall silent. The Emperor’s eyes, along with the eyes of most of the Council members’, fell on Vintressa.

    For a split second, Vintressa’s annoyance kept her from realizing fully what had happened. Quickly, however, the reality of what had just happened crashed down on her, and she had to cough to buy time for her overwhelmed mind. The best, brightest minds in the realm are listening to ME for advise!? I’ve privately told father my thoughts on things before... but never in a council meeting!

    “Ahem,” she cleared her throat, and after a moment’s trepidation, she began. “It is... my opinion, that if we merely send an army in and turn Lord Erelion’s lands into a wasteland, we will waste the lives of thousands of innocents... something I find morally abhorrent!” Her voice gained strength as she talked, as she saw faces around her sometimes nodding in assent, or furrowed in thought.

    “On the most basic level, I offer that razing this land would cut off His Majesty’s government from the tax levies that these hard-working citizens have been providing. House Erelion, and that family alone, has gone against His Majesty’s government, and they alone should pay the price!”

    “What would you then propose, Highness?” Diogenes asked, a slight bit of sarcasm in his voice. Vintressa looked towards her father, expecting him to be glaring at the general. Instead, he was staring directly at Vintressa... and he raised an eyebrow when he saw she was gazing at him.

    “Well, general,” Vintressa stumbled forward, thinking as she spoke, “for time being, we do nothing, save gather information. House Erelion’s secrets, their strengths, their weaknesses. Who they are allied with. We also follow their known agents... find out where they are headed,” she continued. “I hardly doubt they are sitting on their behinds, twiddling their thumbs now that their first plot has failed!” she said with a nervous grin, and to her relief, the comment earned a smile from her father.

    “Of course, General, it would be wise to prepare the troops to march, and as soon as the time is right, forces will fall on House Erelion with the force of a flood. But like I said, we should tail who we can from their House first... someone might try to make a move to secure the Fire Stone, for example.”

    “But you know, Majesty, it requires someone from your bloodline to carry it!” Diogenes interrupted, his face holding a smile of triumph at gaining a point in the debate.

    “Who is to say that they’ll try to move it, or carry it off?” Valaron suddenly jumped in. “They could just as easily try to cover it up, hide it, so we cannot find it,” the Prince shrugged. “If it was hidden in a cave or something, just plug up the cave and disguise the entrance. Fairly simple.”

    “And the smart thing to do from their perspective,” Vintressa took the idea her brother had offered and ran with it. “If this stone is so powerful that they went so far as to try to blackmail the Imperial family, the last thing they would want would be for us, their avowed enemies, to get our hands on it!”

    “So, Vintressa, you’re proposing we essentially follow their agents, and they’ll lead us to the Fire Stone?” the Emperor’s voice spoke suddenly. When Vintressa looked back at him, she saw his face looked thoughtful, not condescending.

    “Yes,” she nodded, “and by staying pat, we might even lure them into showing more of their allies and plots.” She leaned forward, her political mind pouring out thoughts and ideas. “If they think we’ve been stunned, they might call on what allies they have and strike out as quickly as possible... and while we cannot with certainty track all assassins, we can track armies.”

    “And we are sure they have allies how?” Lucius asked, an eyebrow raised again.

    “It would be utterly foolish for them to try and blackmail His Majesty’s Government, with the support it has from the Churches of Pelor, Hieroneous and Tarantor, the Imperial Guard, and the guilds, without some kind of backing. House Erelion might be impetuous,” Vintressa added, “but I doubt they are foolhardy to the point of stupidity.”

    She looked hopefully to her father, and was rewarded with a slight smile on his face, and a gigantic grin of pride in his eyes.

    “Very well, gentlemen,” the Emperor said, “I believe we have found our course of action. General Diogenes, prepare your troops to march on a moment’s notice. But keep this quiet. I want your agents and those of the City Watch to patrol extra carefully... to tail Erelion family members and their servants, but not to intervene. We do not want to scare them away, to places where we cannot watch them!”

    “But... Majesty!” Diogenes complained, “I’ve already sent portions of the City Watch to raid the Erelion mansion! The orders were issued before the start of this meeting!”

    “I still say this is nasty business,” Simeon complained as he dismounted the old, bent horse he had been riding. With some apprehension, he looked towards the darkly painted sign on a rotting board that lay in front of the shop.


    It was written in old Common, the letters perfectly scripted and elegantly written, despite the paint peeling off from the wood it was written on. A perfect testament to the man they were going to talk to inside.

    “What we are about to do is nasty business,” Eyrna offered quietly. “It violates every code sacrosanct to Tarantor, Pelor or any of the other major religions. Sacrilege essentially.”

    “Are you sure he’ll do it?” Simeon asked nervously as the two tied their mounts up in a narrow alley next to the rickety structure. “I mean, why would he...”

    “He would absolutely love to do this,” Eyrna flashed her brother a reassuring smile. The two walked around to the front of the store, and gingerly, Eyrna rapped on the door. A few seconds pasted, before there was a grunt from within, and a withered old creature, skin light green, pulled the door open, its black eyes glaring at the two.

    Beyond him, in the gloom, the two could just barely see piles of bookshelves, piled high with crusty, old tomes... almost all of them hopelessly inane. Cooking manuals, how to books, attempts to explain simple magical tricks. Other items, ranging from old cooking stoves to poorly restored wooden knights, laid about the floor.

    “Whaddaya want?” the goblin snarled. While he looked small and weak, Eyrna knew better than try to push past him. Such an action could be... unfortunate.

    “We need to see your friend, Master Chamoval,” Eyrna said quietly. “There is not much time.”

    “Friend? I have no friends! Only business partners! And its only a half hour since dawn! Come back when the store is normally open!” the small creature hissed, pushing the two towards the door.

    “Well, perhaps you might let us see your friend if you had some persuasion,” Eyrna said sweetly. She then pulled from her tattered cloak a shining, long trade bar, made of solid platinum. “Perhaps this bar worth some thousand gold pieces might give you a thousand reasons to let us see him.”

    The goblin’s sharp, insistent pushing of them towards the door suddenly stopped, and his countenance completely changed. Quickly, green hands lashed out, grasped the bar, and it disappeared somewhere within his own rags.

    “Obviously, you are of some means. Which means you contacted him before, yes?” the goblin asked, shutting the door behind them.

    “Yes. We had some contact with him as a contingency.” Uncle contacted him… I have never met him before…

    “Well, I’ll warn you, he’s been up for several days, blabbering away in tongues I don’t understand,” the goblin said matter of factly as he lead the two through the store to behind the counter. The goblin kicked aside a carpet, and uttered a few words in a harsh, gutteral language. The floor shimmered, and the hinges of a door appeared, complete with a lock, which the goblin quickly opened with a key underneath the counter.

    “He’s down there,” the goblin pointed to the ladder that went down into the new hole in the floor of the store. “And there are no torches allowed, so please hand those over,” the goblin held out his gnarled hand. Both Eyrna and Simeon held up their hands to show they had no such devices on them.

    “Very well. Be careful on the ladder, it is quite dark for you humans,” the goblin said.

    The two clambered down the ladder for what seemed a good five minutes, the clothing on their back scraping into the wall behind them. Finally, they set foot on what seemed to be rough, compacted earth. A dark, musty smell filled their noises, mixed with a rancid, fecal odor.

    The goblin’s voice came to their ears, uttering a few more words, and a soft, ultra dim light seemed to come from within their three bodies, scattering in the dark gloom.

    “Follow me,” the goblin whispered, “he’s this way!”

    The two heirs to House Erelion, clad in run down traveling clothes, found themselves hunched over in the narrow passageways, their backs at time scraping against the earthen ceiling. The dark earthy smell increased, and the rancid sewer smell faded, as they felt themselves going deeper into the ground, underneath the sewers of the great city.

    Finally the passage seemed to open slightly, into a chamber of sorts. It seemed only ten feet high at most, and perhaps a hundred feet long by fifty wide. All along its earth sides niches had been cut into the walls, where now books and tomes, all in seemingly perfect condition, lay stacked in perfect rows. From the earthen walls hung tapestries of immense elegance and value, finely woven with distant silks.

    A beautiful set of silverware, made from a mixture of silver and platinum, sat out on a small ebony table, a black liquid resting in four cups set out as if for tea. A soft light came from a small, glowing globe above, just barely enough to light the room so they could see. Dust colored webs hung from the corners in thick globs, making the surreal place seem even more fantastic.

    In the center, however, was the creature that transfixed their attentions. He was sitting crossed legged on a plush carpet behind the table, his face looking downward, as if in thought. A few quiet words in a harsh, grating tongue came from his lips, but then he suddenly stopped whatever chant he was engaged in.

    “Ah, you have arrived,” a darkly pleasant tenor voice said, and the creature looked up, wafts of snow white hair sliding down his back. His ebony skin seemed to shimmer with magical power, and his white eyes blazed with fire and command...

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