Aphonion Tales (New posts 6/13, 6/15, 6/19)

Abigail announced Lord Silverleaves, and the Council gave him their full attention.

“I received a message that you wished to ask me some questions.” A very large parchment sheet with careful drawings on it filled his arms. With a smile, he said, “And while I’m here, I thought I would show you the architectural plans I have prepared for a performance amphitheater for the new magic academy.”

The Council politely looked over the diagram. “Very impressive, your lordship,” commented Dame Brionna. “That will be the largest performance space in the Archduchy.”

Lord Silverleaves nodded. “At first, I thought about a smaller space, suitable more for internal events. But then I realized that all of your performance spaces are small, and the school simply needs to have a venue for major performances. So by expanding its size, I could fill both the general need of the City and the specific needs of the school at once.”

Alistair thought about the cost involved, but quickly decided that maintaining the Eldar’s support was worth even an enormous expenditure. “Please let us know when you have finished the design-- we’ll want to begin construction quickly.”

Lord Silverleaves appeared slightly confused for a moment. “Ah, of course. I must always remember how quickly you work on your projects. Now then, what were you interested in asking me?”

“At the end of Lord Davion’s duel with the Master Unbidden, he stated that it ended the feud between Quinliart and Canberry. Would the Noldar consider that statement accurate?”

“Oh, yes. As the victor, Lord Davion is entitled to set the conditions. That is clear. If Quinliart breached the conditions, it would be grounds for expulsion from his house, making him a renegade.”

“We have strong evidence that he has sent drow troops to continue to attack the Archduchy, perhaps as part of service to the Abomination of Shur,” said Dame Brionna.

“How appalling… it would seem impossible that Quinliart could worship a mere created being, but he seems to court renegade status. It should be reported to his house. They will not tolerate a flouting of the Law.”

“Do you have any recommendations as to how we should inform them?”

“Has the Princess left?”

“Not yet,” answered Kit, who had made it her business to track the activities of the various diplomats. “She’s been shopping.”

Lord Silverleaves nodded. “I should have expected that. If you inform her, she will inform Moriquendarim when she returns to Khamista. If they are satisfied of the truth of the accusations, he will be declared renegade.”

“Would the cadet drow continue to obey his commands?”

“His followers will be given a choice. Most of that house that were here have been slain by the neighboring controller’s troops, but some survived, and apparently have been redeployed. Some would likely choose to continue in his service, but most will leave him to remain in their house.”
 

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“Excellent,” said Alistair. “That could greatly improve our strategic situation. Your lordship, if we may, there are some other topics we would like to discuss with you. We spoke with the Archbaroness of Mandrath who told us that the Temple of Sytry has been involved in atrocities. We were skeptical because of the hostility between their faiths but agreed to ask you whether you could confirm these reports.”

“It depends; how do you define atrocities?”

“Refusing to provide food, water, and healing to refugees in desperate times unless the refugees would agree to convert, leading to starvation and death. Slaughtering large numbers of innocents because they have been infiltrated by a few with Shadow corruption. And similar acts of intolerance and severity.”

“Their knights have committed such things from time to time,” said Lord Silverleaves sadly, nodding his head. “Their nuns have never participated, and these incidents were not on this continent. They try to serve the light, but they lack discernment. They also strike at the fey, the lesser fey-- they cannot tell the difference between Seelie and Unseelie, so they seek to kill all. In some ways, they are harder than the Inquisition of Paranswarm. We have at one time, not that many turnings ago, intervened on behalf of a group of refugees who were in danger of being wiped out because the Knights of Truth could sense taint, but could not determine who among the refugees were tainted.”

“I’m surprised that you would tolerate their deeds,” said Kit.

“They are powerful in the fight against evil, so we did not want to fight them directly. Matters are too delicate for us to oppose them strongly. Do you know of the reasons for their harshness?”

“I am afraid that we do not, your lordship.”

“The Sytry god came from elsewhere, beyond the wheel of Time and Space.”

“As the Horned Rat did?”

“Indeed, from the same place as the Horned Rat, but he was a God of Law, not of Chaos. The Sytryite god is rough, but he came here to retire. Once a human, he was a sorcerer who so attained the perfection of law that he became a god. First a champion of law, and then he became a god through his perfection of law. He fought long and long in war with Chaos, but finally he rested, and brought his followers here. But the war was here as well, so he set up his temples and forbade certain things, such as resurrection of the dead, because of fear of the taint, although resurrection has never resulted in taint here. Three orders pursue his goals, the Horned Sisters through peace, the Knights of Truth through war, and the Priests of Eternal Light through knowledge. His temple would not view the actions of the Knights of Truth as atrocities if there was taint among any of the refugees they slew or left to die. It might even be only one tainted among thousands, but they would view that as acceptable."
 

“What do they define as tainted?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Much as the Hastur define it: those who have been touched by the demon places. But the Sytryites do not cleanse, they destroy. They are the most fanatical of the paladins. We have sought to moderate them without success. A great star priestess offered the services of one of our greatest coercers to uncover the taint, but was rebuffed.” A slight tone of anger and pride crept into the Eldar’s voice as he described that. “They are serious in their war against evil and taint, but they think they follow the only way.”

“Can the taint be removed from a single person who has it?” asked Kit.

“I have been given the grace of Eiru to see a family of humans, where the entire family had received the taint, so I found the demons one at a time, and ripped their spirits into small bits, and the children grew old, and had children, and grandchildren, and died of old age--you have to do something about this, the way you age and die so quickly--if I can do this, so can they. Your priests can do it. The Hasturs can do it. But they will not listen. They insist that any who have the taint must be purged and that if they know that some in a group are tainted, it is better to purge them all than to let the tainted remain as a threat.”

Alistair leaned forward. “That sounds more like the doctrines of devils to me than anything I would associate with the light. Is it possible that devils are manipulating them, twisting the actions of the Sytryites to serve their own goals?”

“I had not considered that possibility, although you are right that their conduct, whil orderly, is also in a sense evil.” Lord Silverleaves thought about it. “As for the Knights of Truth? No. They are too walled off from anything but their faith and their holy books. The harm they cause is of their own making, not the work of devils. Other Sytryites, religious but not the Knights of Truth, possibly. They may have been deceived.” He thought for a while longer, and then continued in a whisper, “It really is their nature. Their purity is at the expense of all things gray. There is no middle for them. If they were more numerous, I would be more worried about them.”

“Thank you for this information, your lordship,” said Alistair. “We will reach out to them through our temple and encourage them to be more circumspect in the future, and we will begin quietly investigating whether there is any possibility that they are being manipulated."
 

"We have one more matter we would like to discuss with you," continued Alistair. "We have seen signs of new activity by the Old Ones or their followers, and seek to learn more.”

“Yes, the cracks are open again.”

“The cracks, Lord Silverleaves?” asked Dame Brionna.

“You know of course that there are other universes?”

“Do you mean other planes, or other entire systems of planes?” clarified Alistair. “We know of both, but it would be best to understand which you discuss.”

“I speak of other whole systems of planes, like where Sytry came from, but vastly different. Imagine, if you will, a number line. The further you get from this reality, the more different from this reality you get. If we are at zero, Sytry and the Horned Rat came from here, at about fifty.” The Eldar held his hands apart by about a foot to demonstrate the distance. “On that scale, the Old Ones came from over there.” A bright light appeared at the far side of the room through his psionics. “They were not created in the backwash of the creation of reality by Eiru, or whoever; rather, there were cracks in reality and they came through from beyond.”

“How can there be cracks in reality?”

“Ah. To understand that, we must begin by discussing…” Lord Silverleaves talked rapidly, using unfamiliar words and definding many new concepts as he proceeded. Four hours of explanation later, Dame Brionna had a vague idea of what the concept meant, while Kit and Alistair ignored him completely and conducted a private conversation through Kit’s mindlink.

“In any event, these beings had existed for as long as any creation had lasted.”

“They’re everlasting but not eternal,” said Dame Brionna, drawing on her theological training.

“Correct. They creep anywhere there’s a crack. Anywhere that they can get into, they do. They have overlapping but different goals.”
 

Kit, having realized that the conversation was comprehensible again, asked “Is the one that was eaten, eaten everywhere? Or only in our universe?”

“They are always the same, everywhere. The most dangerous wishes to unmake every universe, everywhere. The One Other has a somewhat more comprehensible desire set; no one understands the One Beside. The One Other has a desire to bring back the One Eaten.”

“There seem to be a lot of plots to bring back dead gods these days,” said Kit. “I wonder if the Seachen also want to bring back the One Eaten, in addition to the Abomination of Shur.”

“Perhaps. I cannot say for sure. The Seachen have turned aside every effort we have made to send an embassy, including when we sent star priestesses.” Lord Silverleaves made it clear that he thought that turning aside an embassy of star priestesses was nigh incomprehensible, and a terrible affront.

“Do you know where their old strongholds were?” asked Alistair.

“I am not expert in the followers of the Old Ones. I will communicate your question to the Repository on Khamista. They will be able to answer definitively. As I think about it, there was another attempt to bring back the One Eaten, in the Second Age. I will inquire about that as well.” Lord Silverleaves closed his eyes and projected the message to one of the Eldar seers.

The Council thanked him for his information and then, after he departed, returned to the issue of how best to use the orcish dependants as hostages. Whether by taking them hostage directly, or by trying to cause the horde to rush off to defend the dependants from a perceived threat. Dame Brionna suggested sending false information about an attack to draw the horde off without needing to actually threaten incidents as well as the possibility of arranging a natural threat. But while the Council discussed it at length, they could not reach any clear consensus. They did dispatch sendings to Storr, Cinderhaven, and the Furrows army, warning each of them of the coming threat. The sending ordered an evacuation of Storr, likely to Cinderhaven, and a retreat of the army. But the forces of Cinderhaven were warned to ready themselves for the siege to come, while the most mobile civilians evacuated further.
 


Thanks, HOHB! Since you asked for more... :)

----
That evening, they received Princess Curini’rim for another visit. “My congratulations, your grace, on a smooth coronation. It was rather calmer than I am used to.”

“You think of multiple assassination attempts as calm?” spluttered Dame Brionna, before belatedly tacking on “your highness.”

“None of the later ones came particularly close to succeeding, they did not disrupt the coronation itself, and relatively few of his grace’s subjects, particularly his grace’s subjects of high rank, were killed. Added to the fact that there was neither a major civil war nor any other military attack on the capital, and I would say that it was quite calm, indeed. Perhaps your people have gained more experience in smooth transitions, since your successions take place so frequently.”

“Thank you,” replied Alistair. “We hope that you have enjoyed your time in our demesne.”

“Oh, yes. I have been assembling an art collection. You have a remarkably fine market in primitive,” she caught herself a moment too late, “of human art. I believe I will soon have the finest collection in all of Krashmere--certainly the finest collection of Drucien human art. I will need to consider how to display it best. Part of the joy is that it will offend and anger some of my rivals, so I will need to make sure that they cannot avoid seeing it. I think I may put the tile floorings in my gardens, so that they will see them when they are on my lands or when they overfly them. But it will be a shame to give up the flowers for it.”

“What about the roof of your manor?” suggested Alistair. “You could install the tile work there, which would make it even more prominent from the air, without giving up scarce garden space.”

“A capital idea, your grace. And the topiary that I intend to complement it with could be grown on the roof as well.”

The discussion of art and pleasantries continued for some time before Princess Curini’rim took pity on Dame Brionna and Kit, neither of whom had either sufficient interest in and knowledge of art to participate or a polished enough sense of diplomacy to tolerate the pace of a diplomatic meeting with a Noldar. “Now then, you did not ask me here to discuss my tastes in art.”

“No, your highness, we did not. As you know, Lord Davion Aufaugauthala’rim fought a duel as my champion against the Master Unbidden as champion of Quinliart Moriquenda’rim. Upon his victory, Lord Davion declared an end to the feud with Quinliart, now and for all time. We have of course respected this declaration and taken no hostile actions against him since the duel. However, we have reasons to believe that Quinliart has sent some of his minions to lead uruk and orc hordes in attacks upon our vassals.”

Her calm expression suddenly turned sharp at the last statement. “Do you have evidence of this?”

“We have not observed Quinliart’s vassals directly, but we know that orcish hordes have destroyed the town of Grokken and marched southeast. Reliable sources that we trust inform us that the hordes were led by Morgothian drow in a cadet house beholden to Quinliart.”

“If I may summon a revelator, I will be able to confirm this directly.” After Alistair nodded, she twisted one of her rings and a small daemon appeared.

It smiled at her and said unctuously, “Do you have a command for me, mistress? This will be the last service that I owe you.”

“I command you to show the town of Grokken and then to move the image as I command. When I have seen all that I wish to see, your service will be at an end.”

The revelator projected an image of devastated Grokken. The town had been utterly destroyed and broken, with little hope that anything still lived within what had once been its walls. The Princess commanded it to move the image to the southeast, and as it went through the town, it passed over the bodies of many dead, including Dame Hilda and a knight of Hanal who appeared to have died after a great fight in which they vanquished many attackers back-to-back. Dame Brionna raised her sun disc as the image panned across the burned and desecrated church.

The projected image continued to move, past the broken walls of the town and through a ravaged countryside. The revelator adjusted the image, moving the viewpoint to higher above the land so that a wider area was covered. An enormous army came into view, and they spotted a palanquin carried by trolls at the rear of the horde, with drowan banners flying.

“There,” said Princess Curini’rim angrily, gesturing for the revelator to magnify the banners so that their heraldry would be unmistakably clear. “This must be reported to the Council. It is an abomination. He has defied the Law. I regret that I do not have the volers to rescue your civilians. And if I attack his forces before I present the case, it will become a house war and the case will mean nothing. But while I cannot help directly, I will depart immediately to begin the case. We will not tolerate this.”

[End Session 24]
 

TDRandall

Explorer
Dang! I didn't realize this was the condensed version. I bet the four hour explanation of Alphonion polymorphic-alternate-realitives-and-perferated-discontinuous-nexuses was completely riveting. Shame we can't get the unabridged version. :heh:

Alas, I am sure it would be over my head anyways, since I really don't see the differences in meaning between "everlasting" and "eternal".

Since it worked for HoHb... I'm looking forward to more too! :)
 

"Everlasting" and "eternal" are terms from theology or philosophy of religion. "Everlasting" means within time, but without an end (and often without a beginning). "Eternal" means outside of time. Most monotheistic religions, including mainstream versions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, believe that God is "eternal"-- outside of time, unchanging, and interacting with the world without being within the world's time. Most deities within D&D (as well as, for example, the ancient Greek gods) are everlasting-- they do not age and they can live forever, but time passes for them, and their future self can have different knowledge and motivation than their present or past self, as opposed to being all one entity for whom past, present, and future self are not meaningful.

And, since you asked for more storyhour, .... :)

-----
[Session 25]

The Council devoted its attention the next morning to dealing with some routine security matters. They finally had enough time to deal with several concerns that they had identified but had not yet been able to prioritize. Kit began by mentally scanning over her fan in more detail. She knew that a large network of agents existed to provide intelligence to the Archduchy, but she had no contact with many of them. She did not even know who many of them were. She spent some time contacting the minds linked to each of the twenty crystals and taking their measure. None of them had urgent messages to report, but she identified three vacancies. She had no way to tell whether they were among the people who had chosen to follow the Archduchess into death or whether the links had been deliberately left unused to provide room for other agents. Either way, she resolved to identify key members of her network to promote to contacts on the fan.

After she finished that, Kit joined the rest of the Council with a recommendation that they procure items that would permit mindlinks within the Council as well. The flexibility, speed of communication, and secrecy was simply too valuable to ignore, and while Kit could establish mindlinks manually, it would be easier to not have to rely on her presence. Alistair and Dame Brionna rapidly agreed that mindlink devices were essential.

“Perhaps we should make them more than mindlinks, Your Grace,” added Dame Brionna. “It might also be convenient if they allowed teleportation to each others’ locations. In particular, it would allow us to respond to attacks on your person, and it would allow Your Grace to escape.”

“An interesting thought. But I think we need to consider the palace’s wards. Do we know what happens if someone attempts to teleport in through the wards?”

“The Eldar explained once,” said Kit. “It sets up a ‘dimensional shunt.’ Anyone who tries to teleport in arrives in holding cells in the palace dungeons rather than where they intended to arrive. But I think that’s only for psionic teleportation.”

“Let me see if I can figure out what the magical wards do.” Alistair concentrated on the palace wards and focused his awareness on their magical energy. He found the component that warded against teleportation. It was complicated, he thought, but not so complicated as to be beyond his understanding. “Ah. That would be unpleasant. The wards rather messily splatter anyone attempting to teleport in magically. The various parts of the intruder would end up on random moons.”

“Ugh. I’m surprised your grandmother would allow such a thing.”

“The wards far predate her. I suspect she thought it was not ideal, but that there was nothing to be done about it,” Alistair rationalized. What he did not understand was that, unlike him, his grandmother had understood the wards’ actual effects.

“Your Grace, do we know if anyone has triggered the psionic wards? They might be worth interrogating. We haven’t received any reports of prisoners, but…”

“Brightspan!” called out Alistair. When the page entered, Alistair said, “Please go to the palace dungeons, to the psionic ward holding cells. I want you to look over the warden, to determine whether he has been corrupted. You should then ask him whether there are any prisoners in those holding cells. If there are any, look them over as well, but do not have him release them. Then report back to us.”

Lord Brightspan saluted and departed. The better part of an hour later, he returned. “The warden seems to be a loyal man, rather strict, but not cruel or evil. He said that those cells contain one prisoner. The prisoner teleported in about four years ago-- he reported the arrival at the time to the Privy Secretary and then assumed that a decision had been made to keep the prisoner isolated.”

Kit cursed the Privy Secretary’s treachery. “Who is the prisoner?”

“A very irate fey, Dame Katherine.’

“Evil?”

“No, Dame Brionna, I don’t think so. Highly chaotic, though. From his aura and his appearance, I should guess that he is one of the Sidhe, and Seelie.”

Alistair shook his head. “I hope this hasn’t created a problem with the fey.” He quickly scrawled out a message on parchment and sealed it. “Take this to the warden. Have him bring the prisoner up, without chains, to one of the audience chambers. We’ll meet him there.”
 

The Council met the fey in one of the audience chambers, with Alistair appearing as a projected image. The fey was not very large and carried a long, tassled scroll. He bowed in the complex fey matter.

“On behalf of King Michael O’Brien of the Silent Wood, I bring greetings and message to the Archduchess and Empress of Canberry.” The messenger was young and wore the livery of the King of the Silent Wood. He appeared irate, but unaware that anything was wrong. The four-year wait wasn’t long enough, more like an extra day for a human. “There is a rising in the East and the West. Those in the North who seek godhood have raised up their fortifications and prepare to make the blood sacrifice. Now is the time for all who serve the gods of good and light.”

“We thank you for this message,” replied Alistair. “The Archduchess Amelia has passed, but we assure you, as her heir and as the new Archduke and Emperor, that we will act. We have learned of these activities through our own means, and we have set our plans to deal with them in motion. May we ask who it is that comes before us?”

The fey bowed again. “I am Sir Thistledown, of King Michael’s guard.”

“Welcome, Sir Thistledown, and be assured that the old alliances remain firm. We will send you with what intelligence we have that it may aid your liege. How did you come to know of the threat?”

“King Michael was alerted by kidnappings of children. A foul business, and our investigations revealed that it was worse even than we had believed. Also, there were encounters with followers of the old gods, who had not been seen in the south since before my birth.”

“Indeed.” The Council briefly described their similar findings, thanked Sir Thistledown, and had him shown out.

Dame Brionna scowled after he left. “If Deborah Brightspan weren’t already dead, I could kill her for this.”

“At least it was a fey ambassador,” said Alistair. “If we had unknowingly incarcerated a human ambassador for four years, it could have caused a war. But we also need to do some more work on the Privy Secretary front. We’re still turning up surprises.”

“Did we ever search her personal quarters?” asked Kit.

“I remember ordering them sealed, but I can’t remember ordering them searched,” said Dame Brionna.

“Well, let’s get on that.”

Kit nodded. “I’ll send a team of my people to handle it.”

“Make sure you send some people with both magical and psionic capabilities. There may be traps, or concealed secrets,” said Dame Brionna.

“Please. You think my people are amateurs? We’ll take care of it.”

“We never searched Caldra and Caligshire, either, did we? Either their estates or their townhouses.”

“I’ll get people on those as well, m’lord.”

“And what about Deborah Brightspan’s mother?” asked Dame Brionna.

“We had the Duke of Brightspan investigating her. I don’t want to offend him by acting too heavily in his duchy. Still, I’ll have Father Waters use a sending to the Duke of Brightspan’s chaplain asking for an update.”
 

The Archbishop of the Sun arrived shortly after the meeting with Sir Thistledown.

“I received a message that Your Grace wished to meet with me?”

“Indeed. Thank you for coming, your excellence. Are you familiar with the Old Ones?”

“I was briefed on them after investiture as a bishop, though I must admit, they have become more familiar of late. Father Winchell, the priest assigned to the archdiocese to watch the Old Ones, reported movements among their followers to the South. The Old Ones provide an enormous threat. You have copies of the documents about the last three risings?”

The members of the Council looked around at each other. After a moment, Dame Brionna spoke up. “I don’t believe we do, your excellence.”

“Ah. As Archbishop, I clear those of the Privy Council to read the documents, with neither prejudice nor punishment, for the knowledge within. I will have copies sent over, for your eyes only, of course.

“In any event, the Old Ones are clearly the greatest threat we face. Our hierarchs recognized the threat at the time of the ratification of the Ecumenical Council documents. The Ecumenical Council’s agreements offer so much power to forces that are neither of Light nor Order that we may form a united front against the Old Ones, rather than just Borsh’tro and his ilk. The Protector and Defender of the Faith of Paranswarm correctly identified the threat, after only one outbreak.”

“It’s that dangerous?” asked Dame Brionna. “Worse even than the Shadow?”

“We could not bring Borsh’tro into the agreement. We asked that they agree to forswear further conquests while the threat lasted, while we would have sworn to curtail our efforts to liberate areas under Shadow. The threat of the Old Ones is that great.”

The entire Council thought about that for a while in silence. Finally, Alistair spoke. “If you were willing to make that concession to Borsh’tro… what concessions did the Temple agree to with Paranswarm and the rest?”

“Our concessions were difficult to accept. Most importantly, we were required to acknowledge co-equal gods, or at least religions, equal in dignity to the Lord of Light. That was the major theological agreement extracted from us. Non-theologically, we agreed not to seek to become establishmentarian in four split countries, with Paranswarm making similar concessions. The rest of the points were easier. We were to permit Whimseyites to continue operating in areas where they are, and to permit Mider to continue operating, restricted to the areas where he has been traditionally worshipped, in ten regions. Other establishmentarian religions made similar agreements, although of course this had a greater impact on ourselves and the Dark Temple than on any others.”
 

“What can the Church tell us about the recent activities of the Old Ones, your excellence?” asked Alistair.

“Several of their old bases of power are active again. There has been a recent rising of a mountain and an island that were centers of their power in ancient times. We also know that those that are seen but not seen are abroad again, but we have not captured any.”

“Based on what we have learned, we expect an attack on His Grace from one,” said Dame Brionna. “We were hoping your excellence could give us more information on their capabilities.”

“An attack on the Archduke is a dangerous prospect. By the information in the sealed files, if one of them of any strength in this plane manages to touch a person, it can draw out a copy of that person’s knowledge. They can transform freely, but are limited to appearing as a humanoid between roughly four and seven feet. While they use the knowledge they draw out to deceive, they need to update regularly to prevent stale knowledge. Their most common method of reaching a target is to use sexual congress, if possible.” The Archbishop either did not notice or tactfully ignored the concerned looks that Dame Brionna and Kit exchanged. “One of our advantages is that there are usually not great numbers of them. They position themselves well, but never well enough.”

“What sorts of roles have they assumed?” asked Kit.

“In the past, they have taken positions as: the mistress of midlevel general; a body servant to powerful merchant who directed large amounts of grain; the assistant to a warehouse manager who could taint a supply of wine; a caravan master; and an artillery commander.”

“Do they have weaknesses, Your Excellence?”

“In the second outbreak, we determined that they were abroad. Our clergy obtained a method of shunting them from this Plane. Unlike any of us, their spirits are still bound to the plane where the goddess of the pale bone is imprisoned. The people they had replaced instantly became heaps of rotting organs when we performed the ritual. We have written record under oath that in every case the person’s mimicry was perfect. None had been suspected.”

“Is there any way to reveal them, then?” asked Alistair.

“The only known means to identify them is by checking their blood, or rather, as they do not truly have blood, drawing a sample to ascertain whether it is blood or ichor.”

“We will need an excuse to check blood samples without revealing what we know.”

“Perhaps certain parasites can be detected through analysis of the blood, Your Grace?”

“Certainly true,” said the Archbishop. “Blood examination is an important tool to deal with efforts by the aboleth to infiltrate their agents.”

“Perfect. Our public explanation will be that we have received a report that Quinliart may have recruited aboleth allies.” Alistair drew his dagger and pricked his thumb, showing the clear line of red blood before wiping it away. He then proffered the dagger, hilt-first, to the Archbishop. “I’m sorry, Your Excellence, but we must guard against infiltration within the Church as well.”

The Archbishop breathed in heavily, clearly taken aback by the directness of the Archduke, but he took the dagger, drew blood on his arm, and passed it on to Kit and Dame Brionna. “I will send over four priests with special knowledge to advise you on this matter.”
 


Artoomis

First Post
Two days without an update or explanation?!? I am having withdrawal symptoms!!

Which is just my way of saying, "Great story hour... more, please!"
 

My apologies-- I was occupied with business travel. I'll try to give the posts to Orichalcum or Ladybird in the future.

----

“We also wish to discuss the issue of the Southern refugees, your excellence,” said Dame Brionna. “We have intelligence that some of the refugees are falling under the influence of the cults of the Old Ones. We hope that the Church will be able to provide the refugees with a more acceptable source of faith.”

“Indeed. We have been working on that for some time, although not in a particularly organized fashion. Nearly five hundred mendicant priests of the Lord of Light are spread among the refugees. Some of those priests have successfully established parishes. Others have disappeared, presumably due to the slavers and other forces of evil in the South.”

“An admirable start, your excellence, but we think more may be needed,” replied Alistair.

“I will see what we can do. I can strip out some two hundred priests from their current assignments in the areas under my direct supervision and make a request for additional priests from dioceses within the province.”

“We can provide supplies of food and other necessaries to aid in your efforts,” said Kit.

“That will be helpful. You are aware, I trust, of the presence of Paranswarmians also working to convert the refugees?”

“We are. Under the circumstances, we view that as better than the alternatives, although of course we would rather convert as many of the refugees to Glor’diadel as possible.”

“The Church is inclined to agree.”

“You should know that we are seriously considering annexing the South. That’s most likely if we make a marriage alliance with Princess Kaitlyn, since that would give us a colorable claim to the thrones of the old South Kingdoms, but we may annex at least parts of the South even without any real claim. We discussed the possibility with the Archbaroness of Mandrath. She said, in veiled and coded discussion, that the Temple of Paranswarm would not oppose that stabilization and would recognize that the faith would follow the flag.”

“That probably means that the Protector and Defender of the Faith has tacitly approved the idea. The Church would support such an effort, because of the tremendous humanitarian need and to bring the Light to the refugees.”

“What sorts of supplies do the refugees most need?”

“For the most part, farm animals didn’t make it north. As a result, there has also been overhunting, with both pending starvation and large predators turning to attacking humans. The Archdiocese has sent some cattle, but the number needed is too high to purchase on the open market or for the Archduchy to supply directly. Supplying additional animals would help.”

“We could send fertilized chicken eggs,” suggested Dame Brionna.

“And we’ll have Mahler Fife, our Minister of Trade, look into acquiring more cattle from abroad.”

“Good. Most of the refugees are farmers, but without stock and tools.”

“We’ll have the Minister of Agriculture look into the issue of tools and seed. This will take some time to coordinate, but we should be ready by the time that you have the additional priests to send.”
 

The Archbishop nodded. “Are there other issues you wished to discuss?”

“A few. You should know that we intend to send messages to the realms within Korflok that permit slavery informing them of the displeasure of the Protector of the Light at their apostasy. We will concentrate on the Glor’diadelian nobles that permit slavery, but we’ll try to pressure all of the Korflok nobles.”

“Excellent. The Church has been displeased about that for years but unable to do much directly. You should know that Korflok is one of the regions I mentioned before, where we agreed to not seek to make the area uniformally establishmentarian, in exchange for a similar agreement from the Temple of Paranswarm.”

“We will take care to be sufficiently clear in our messages to the Paranswarmian realms, then, that we do not seek to require their conversion, but only their adoption of secular laws consistent with their coexisting with Glor’diadelian states. Are there other areas where Glor’diadelian nobles tolerate slavery that we should also address?”

“We will send you a list of relevant areas, including all three of the other contested areas. The areas that remain divided between Glor’diadel and Paranswarm tend to be areas where Glor’diadelian nobles are most likely to slide into orderly evils.”

“We understand. Send us the list, and we will see what we can do.”

“I am glad to see you taking an active role as Protector of the Light in enforcing orthodoxy. I must admit that it is somewhat unexpected, but it is welcome, and the Church will back you. I will send messages to the local bishops, exhorting them to bring their authority to bear in support of your efforts.”

“Our thanks. We should also discuss the Abomination of Shur. An army from Debonai is en route to ally with the Abomination’s forces. We would like the help of Debonai, but at least to get them to stop supporting the Abomination. We are also trying to recruit the support of Augurt, mostly through the Archbaroness of Mandrath, but so far the lord of Augurt resists involvement.”

“I will contact my counterpart in Debonai, who may be able to help. I cannot assist with Augurt; we have no influence there.”

“Thank you-- we will continue to work on Augurt through other channels, then. There is one last personnel matter we should discuss. Father Waters has been functioning as something of a personal chaplain to the royal household. We largely inherited him from his similar role in my father’s household, but we find him agreeable. Would you be amenable to a formal appointment to that position for him, perhaps with an elevation to a more appropriate rank?”

“I would be happy to give him that appointment as an assignment. He does not have the scholarly background necessary for installation as a bishop, but we could make him a canon, if your grace would not be offended by having a personal chaplain who is not of episcopal rank. Elevating him to canon would also oblige him to get the scholarly background. Perhaps in ten years he would be ready for advancement to bishop.”

“That would be acceptable to us. You don’t think he would view that as too much of an obligation too close to retirement? He’s not old, but he’s also not young.”

“It will surprise him, no doubt. I cannot imagine that Father Waters ever thought he would advance in ecclesiastical rank. But I shouldn’t worry that he would view it as an imposition. I expect that he will strive as hard as he can, as he always has, and as for the possibility of retirement, I doubt that Father Waters will ever retire. He is of the type to die with his armor on, if I may borrow a martial metaphor that has a certain appropriateness given his inclinations.”

The Council thanked the Archbishop, who performed the expected blessings and departed.
 

Kit went to Lady Overfifer’s townhouse to meet with the Strom to discuss Duke Snatterkaz’s efforts to rescue Princess Anastasia.

“Good day, your lordship. I am Dame Katherine of Lyneham. I met Duke Snatterkaz earlier in his efforts to rescue the Princess, and I wished to find out if we could do anything to assist you.”

“A pleasure to meet you. I’m afraid that we will need quite some assistance if we are to be of aid to my lord, Duke Snatterkaz. With the voller, we could travel there reasonably quickly. It was an older, slower ship than some, certainly than the best ships of the imperial navy, but a good model nonetheless. I am not certain how we will reach His Grace in time.”

“You are traveling to assist the Duke’s efforts?”

“Oh, yes. Duke Snatterkaz is a very good liege, embodying the best virtues of the nobility. When he requested our aid, we hastened to arrive as quickly as we could.”

“Did he request your aid in particular?”

“All twelve of his vassals were called up and traveled down in their vollers; about nine-hundred troops total, mostly knights.”

“How does the Duke fare?”

“The last news we have was from two days ago. They were in room to room combat at the time. Some of his vassals may already have arrived, in strike vollers. I did not have any vessels faster than the one we took that could hold an appreciable number of troops.”

“Do you have a sense of how the battle was going?”

“They should surely prevail. If the ratmen reinforced it might be different, of course, but they don’t seem to be. There are a few demons, of course, which pose a greater threat than mere ratmen, but Lord Paranswarm gives the means to strike them down. The alternative does not bear thinking of.”

“I take it you support the Duke’s efforts out of more than personal loyalty.”

“Oh, yes. Princess Anastasia must be rescued,” the Strom said with emphasis. “Great Lord of Darkness, if she isn’t, her sister would inherit.”

“We quite agree that Princess Anastasia would make a far better Queen-Empress than the alternative--that is why we have offered our assistance to His Grace.”
 

The strom looked pensive. “I wonder where the Queen-Empress’s forces are. They have only sent scout parties, distributed throughout the southlands. They look for the Princess, but do not trust Duke Snatterkaz’s word as to where she is.”

“That is unusual in Hanal, right?”

“More than unusual-- it is perilously close to an insult to the Duke’s honor, which could lead to a challenge in the House of Lords, and then open war. Except that would be disastrous, so Snatterkaz will treat it as a minor insult, be hostile, and refuse to speak to the Queen-Empress for a couple of years. Then Princess Anastasia inherits, then her daughter or son inherits, and all is well.”

“How close might the succession be?”

The strom chuckled. “You mean will Queen-Empress Thyastis die before she can do any more damage? Her death was closer last end year than this.”

“Was she ill?”

“No. A couple of the saner nobles tried to hurry things along. They did not succeed. But now… She could last twenty years, but more likely only five or ten. Once the bouts begin, they get worse rapidly, with a steady pace of increases.”

“The bouts, your lordship?”

“Bouts of insanity, not remembering what was done afterwards. It skips some generations, but always recurs. A representative from the Holy See said that it had to do with the piping in the capital, but I don’t understand how that could be true. We’ve used lead for hundreds of years.”

“You mentioned that the Duke was in room to room fighting. Do you know anything about how the Princess is?”

“I don’t know much, but the last I heard about Anastasia’s personal condition was that she was resistant to whatever they were trying to do. I must admit that I did not much understand the message. Perhaps she is resisting the curse of the ratmen, and they are trying to turn her into one of them? I hear they can do that, partially by putting their spittle on their blades.”

“I think that those are wererats. As far as I have seen, ratfolk are different. I’ve never heard of them transforming a person into a rat creature.”

“Ah. We will see when we get there. I fear it will be quickest if we wait for our replacement voller. Traveling by land would get us there after the battle has been won.”

“How many troops do you have?”

“About fifty men, plus the surviving members of the voller’s crew.”

“We should be able to teleport a group that size down without much difficulty.”

“My thanks, but that was what we tried first. We were unable to teleport across the border; the mage said it felt like crossing an impenetrable barrier.”

“Oh, really? That’s very interesting. I’ll speak with some of our mages to find out what the problem is. Is the mage with you?”

“No, I don’t have a mage with me. The mage was the personal mage to one of my allies, who should already be there. We sought to travel down together by magic but then took our vollers when the teleportation failed. I have no mages now, only a couple of mild psions.”

“Be careful relying on them for communications. We have had some psionic communications with the Duke, but our psions sensed what may have been eavesdropping by the enemy.”

“Thank you for informing me. We know that they have some psions. Fortunately, their magical support disappeared about two weeks ago.”

Kit rose. “Thank you for your aid to Grokken. We will see if we can get you to the Duke’s aid faster than waiting for another voller.”

“I only wish I could have done more for your people. Grokken reminded me of the siege of the City of Crystal, some twenty years ago. The Queen-Empress commanded that siege. The City was built by the elves, but abandoned, and then occupied by humans. We charged, but the walls did not fall. So we besieged it for six months. They ran out of food, sortied, and we seized the gate. After that… it was short. I prefer not to remember that. It was then I learned what we had gained as Empress. She commanded death to all within the walls.”

“All the more reason for us to work to recover Princess Anastasia, your lordship,” said Kit slowly after swallowing hard at that description.
 

Kit reported her conversation with the strom to the rest of the Council. “I’m worried about the block on teleportation. I don’t know what it means, but it’s worrisome-- and it will make it harder for them to get Princess Anastasia out? Maybe Lady Constance will be able to suggest a way to deal with the problem?”

“Why not ask the Minister of Magic?” asked Dame Brionna. “He’s also an archmage, and unlike Lady Constance, he isn’t in league with devils.”

“But Lady Constance has been so helpful in the past,” said Kit.

“And teleportation is a form of conjuration magic. A summoning specialist like Lady Constance will know more about the dimensional lock or whatever it is than a generalist like the Minister would.”

Lady Constance arrived shortly. The Council described the problem, and she nodded thoughtfully. “Drift is beginning, then.”

“Drift, Lady Constance?”

“The forces in the South are largely extraplanar. More importantly, they are routinely gating in demons, ratlords, and other extraplanar creatures. That is causing their territory to drift out of alignment with the Prime Plane. Teleportation is more difficult because of the drift. If a mage is inexpert in planar travel and adjusting a teleportation, it would be like striking a steel wall.”

“Drifting out of alignment with the Prime… do you mean that it is becoming overlayed with the Abyss, like in the Shadowlands?”

“It is the same process, but it will be decades before the South becomes like the Shadowlands with a permanent connection to the Abyss. At present, it is just less connected to the rest of the Prime Plane.”

“Is there any way to stop or reverse the process?”

“A very simple way,” said Lady Constance dryly. “Take back the territory. When the Shadowline advances or retreats, it is decades or a century before the land is fully absorbed into the Shadow or returns to the light. The Shadowline itself is a border that becomes a physical manifestation of the difference between the Prime and the foreign plane. Lands that have been absorbed and are retaken gradually must shift back.”

“Does the presence of the ratfolk inherently cause the shift?”

“I should think not. While they are not native to this plane, the South is barely out of kilter currently. If they did not continuously open uncontrolled dimensional rifts, it would not get worse just because they live there. But the rifts are a deliberate effort to let free willed beings through-- demons in the case of Shadow, sometimes demons but usually ratlords in the Southlands. In theory, the South could slip out of the Prime into another world completely. In practice, that has only ever happens in Shadow.”

“Another reason for us to push against the ratfolk, Your Grace,” observed Dame Brionna.

“Indeed. Lady Constance, could you help us teleport a small contingent of troops into the Southlands? We would like to assist the troops that were on the voller that recently landed in the City to reach their destination.”

“How many?”

“About fifty knights. Ideally, we would also want to be able to extract some troops back in a few days time--these knights are part of a rescue force, and there are some politically important people in the Southlands.”

“We could bring fifty knights down easily, with a gate. For the return, we would need a contingent of knights and scouts to secure our position, so we can then open a second gate for extraction.”

“Your Grace, the palace guard will be perfect for that mission, especially because they understand how to fight defensively.”

“Good. Pick out a company of your best guards, and let’s get them through.”

Lady Constance bowed slightly and began her preparations as Dame Brionna organized the guards who would accompany the mages.

* * *

Later that day, while doing one of her regular full patrols of the palace, Dame Brionna prayed for Glor’diadel to provide her with a vision of her warhorse. She walked and walked and prayed and walked and prayed. As she crossed the catwalks on the top of the palace, she heard a sudden whinny. A pure white horse with wings and a horn stood on the wall.

Dame Brionna’s eyes widened. “Lord Glor’diadel, I am not worthy.” She knelt by the unipeg, not before it but with it, and then gave a full round of prayer. It waited patiently, understanding what she was doing. She then extended her hand with a bit of honeycomb. The stallion ate it and whinnied again. Dame Brionna opened her mind to it, and the unipeg communed with her a bit before flying down to the courtyard to wait. Dame Brionna traveled down to it, and together they began the process of teaching her to fly on it safely.

[End Session 25]
 

[Session 26]

Before the Council formally assembled the next morning, Dame Brionna pulled Kit aside. “I’d like to have a word with you about Abigail.”

“Sure. What about her?”

“I would like to make sure that she receives a proper religious education. Too many people from the South Kingdoms have either no faith to speak of or even bad faiths. I would like to try to make sure she’s loyal to Glor’diadel. I know that you and the Archduke miss many of the morning services, but if you don’t object, I’d like to bring Abigail with me to the morning services. Or the noon services, if you would prefer, and I would not ask for her to come on days when you have specific duties for her. I’m not trying to intrude in your education and governance of your squire, but…”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re her family. Of course you can take her to services if you would like to. Why don’t you plan on regularly bringing her to the morning services? I rarely have tasks for her to do in the early mornings. And when I do, you can bring her to later services.”

“Thank you.” Dame Brionna’s gratitude was so clear, over such a minor matter, that Kit had to suppress a smile. “I didn’t want to intrude on your role as her knight, but…”

“Like I said, don’t worry about it. She may be my squire, but you’re her family.”

Alistair came into the room and greeted his counselors. They chatted briefly and then turned to the day’s work. Alistair asked if they had received a report from the Duke of Brightspan’s efforts to investigate his cousin who was aligned or worse with the Unseelie, the former privy secretary’s mother. A little investigation determined that the Duke’s troops were still marching towards her manor. The Council ordered a voller from the Sky Guard to offer its services in moving the troops along. They still did not want to intervene directly without giving the Duke a chance to deal with the matter first-- the risk that they would offend him further was too great. But the sooner they could get more information, the better off they would be.

With that dealt with, they turned to the issue of Debonai’s support for the Abomination of Shur. Kit reported that one of her contacts through the fan was well placed in Debonai, but that she had not had time to get a full report yet. The Council adjourned to allow her to do so.
 

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