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Barsoom Tales I - COMPLETE


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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
The inside of a Blood Council Sanctuary was not at all like Arrafin had imagined. She had thought everything would be severe, blood-red to match the famous gowns, formidable and uncompromising.

Instead, as she passed through the gate, she found herself in what looked like an elegant garden, carefully tended trees and pools with low buildings linked by graceful breezeways. A square tower with a pointed roof rose four stories towards the rear of the estate, while near at hand a wide verandah encircled what looked like the largest structure here. The girl who had opened the gate for Arrafin gestured towards this building, and, sandals crunching on gravel, the Naridic girl made her way as indicated.

"Blood Sister Torokan wishes to see this book. She is very interested to meet you, Arrafin."

Arrafin smiled. Her head whirled with questions that she tried to contain until she could meet this Blood Sister Torokan. She observed the girl leading her across the entrance yard. She was of course Lohanese, with dark, slanted eyes and black hair piled up in a tight bun on her head. The distinctive Blood Council robe, crimson and stiff and rolled like a tube, looked uncomfortable to Arrafin's eyes, complicated and fussy, but it was very beautiful. It made the Blood Council woman walk with quick, short steps. She caught Arrafin staring at her and smiled, causing the Naridic girl to blush with embarrassment and look away.

"So, Blood Sister Torokan? And you're...?"

"I am Blood Sister Kagarasa. My name is Yasami."

"Yasami. I'm Arrafin. But you know. I told you. Before."

Arrafin looked around, lips pursed.

"So this is a... Sanctuary, right? It's, um, nice."

"Watch your step."

The floors were polished, dark wood and it seemed to Arrafin that only her footsteps made any noise. Yasami seemed to glide along without making any sound whatsoever other than a faint swishing from her robe with each precise little step.

Yasami stopped them next to a portion of blank wall that had no distinguishing characteristics that Arrafin could determine. The Lohanese woman reached out and pulled the whole wall aside, and Arrafin blinked in surprise at the elegant room suddenly revealed beyond. Kneeling in the center of the room, icy and forbidding, sat another Lohanese woman, practically identical to Yasami. Arrafin tried a smile, and was encouraged to have it returned.

"I am Kimiko Torokan, High Blood Sister of the Pavairelle Sanctuary. I would like to see this book you have found, Arrafin al-Fasir beni Hassan. Come in."

"Okay."

*****

Elena found Pavairelle overwhelming. The biggest city she'd ever been to was Fort Burnoll, which was nowhere near the size of Pavairelle. As she tried to navigate her way back to the del Maraviez house from Katir Shoran's tenement, she stopped at regular intervals, trying to orient herself with what she knew of the city.

To the south lay the Inner Sea. Or, at least, the docks. Pavairelle sat at the tip of a peninsula extending southwards into the Inner Sea, so technically the sea lay on three sides of the city, but only to the south was there any access to the water. Elena currently stood in Wharf District, which lay near the docks. The city sloped up away from the docks, rising to two significant heights: Temple Hill, near the center of the city and Palace District, on the west side, away from Wharf. She could peer down a street lined with tall, leaning tenements and see Temple Hill rising in the distance. If she kept heading that way, and bore a little to her right, she ought to come across Duelists' Street, the wide boulevard that wound from the Gate (on the north side of the city) around the base of Temple Hill to peter out somewhere nearby in Wharf District. If she could find Duelists' Street she'd be okay -- the del Maraviez house was a straight line up Temple Hill from there.

Elena sighed and set off down a street that looked promising, hoping that it wouldn't suddenly turn into a dead end of opium houses and suspicious thugs. A party of red-skinned Kishak soldiers pushed past, bristling with spears and slim longswords, drawing angry glances from nearly everyone on the streets. An insult was shouted from an upstairs window but the soldiers continued on their way without looking back.

She had never seen such a multitude of races collected together. Saijadani, Pavairellean, Kishak, Naridic, Hinsuan and bright-haired folk she took to be the famous Shaeric pirate types all mingled together in an endless riot of humanity. Elena winced as she inhaled incautiously. An endless riot of stinky humanity. She fought her way to wide cross-street and looked up at a distant trumpetting call. Looked way up.

Far above, on the end of a long slender neck, the tiny, placid head of a gargantuan sauropod drifted into view. To Elena's amazement and delight, the great beast came lumbering up the street, the ridge of its back three stories above the street. She stared in awe as the great walking mountain of dinosaur approached, people milling about its legs without fear of getting stepped on. From either side of the beast hung wooden platforms only a few steps above street level, like gargantuan saddlebags, crowded with passengers who jumped on and off as the immense creature rumbled along.

She realised it was a form of transportation and, unable to resist, clambered aboard as the creature stomped past. A young man asked her to pay a fare and once that was taken care of, she sat happily with her feet dangling over the side, watching Pavairelle drift by.

*****

Etienne opened his eyes and groaned.

"Bright light."

He knew that ceiling. That was Marques' ceiling. He was in the del Maraviez house. He wasn't dead.

"I'm not dead. What happened?"

Etienne's body had taken a series of hard knocks in the last little while: stabbed by the Keyad'ar they'd fought with Laughter of Stones, transported through some shadowy realm to Pavairelle, and then... he remembered the book, Arrafin's face and then...

He tried to sit up and his body told him not to bother.

"I'm not dead."

He tilted his head up as the door opened and a tall, broadshouldered man walked in. It took Etienne a few seconds to realise he was looking at Isaac, only instead of his trademark floppy hat and unkempt travel garments, he was wearing an expensive suit of silk and brocade, with his mustache and hair carefully groomed, his boots polished to a brilliant shine and no cigar in sight. Etienne frowned.

"Okay, maybe I'm dead. What's going on?"

Isaac scowled.

"We're going to a party. Some Countess or other is holding some shindig and Marques thinks we should go. Stupid idea, if you ask me."

"But nice suit."

Isaac's scowl deepened.

"And nobody's seen Arrafin all day. She went this morning to talk to the Blood Council about that book, and she hasn't come back yet. I'm worried. And nobody knows what's happened to Elena."

"Where's Nevid?"

"Oh. Nobody knows where he is, either."

Isaac shrugged, indicating a complete lack of interest in Nevid's whereabouts. Etienne nodded.

"Arrafin went to the Blood Council? What for?"

"Apparently the book had Lohanese writing in it. She thinks they might translate it for her."

"Yeah, if they don't turn her into a bug or something just for asking."

Isaac stared at the young Kishak for a second.

"Well, I don't know," the young Kishak protested, "Maybe they all have magic powers. You saw that one over... wherever we were. With Laughter. She had magic powers. Maybe they all do."

"Laughter said that was some sort of lizard-person thing."

"Well, she looked like a Lohanese hottie to me."

"Even while she was disembowelling you?"

Etienne grimaced at the memory.

"Yeah, okay, she was a total cow. But hot."

"We were talking about Arrafin."

The door opened and the slender Naridic girl edged in.

"Hi. Are you okay, Etienne? Marques said you might be awake by now. Hi," she waved at Isaac, not recognizing him, "I'm Arrafin."

Isaac closed his mouth and frowned, uncertain how to react. Arrafin smiled at him and crossed through the afternoon sunshine to a chair by the head of the bed where she sat and gave Etienne a once-over.

"They said it was poison. How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. Never better. After I've thrown up a few dozen times, I'll be good as new. What happened at the Blood Council?"

"Oh. Yes. I took the book there."

Isaac sighed.

"We know, Arrafin. What did they say? What is that book all about?"

"Hi, Philip. I didn't recognize you. Why are you wearing all that? Should I call you Isaac?"

"Call me anything you like, Arrafin."

Arrafin chuckled.

"It'd be funny if I called you 'Loretta', though, wouldn't it?"

She snickered to herself for a few seconds.

"Yeah. Okay. Well, how come you're wearing... that?"

Isaac gritted his teeth.

"The Blood Council, Arrafin. What did they say?"

"Oh, yeah. It's magic. The book. It's full of magic spells. But they're math. You see, Kimiko, that's High Blood Sister Kimiko Torokan, actually she's really nice although those robes must be awfully uncomfortable, but I guess they get used to it. Anyway, magic."

"Magic."

"Magic."

"Yeah, magic. She says she'll have it translated for me. I'm going back tomorrow so Yasami can help me with the first part. They're all really nice."

"You're going to learn how to do magic."

"Magic."

"Exciting, huh? Where's Elena?"

*****

Elena would never admit it, but the idea of dressing up in del Maraviez-sponsored finery thrilled her. She wasn't much for having nice dresses, being far too impractical for daily wear, but the chance to dress up in something pretty and show off a little bit was making her grin to herself.

Her new outfit pleased her. Dark mahogany silk in lovely long drapes, as she twirled the ends of the skirt rose a little and then settled back down sensibly. Consuelo, Marques' elegant wife, beamed warmly.

"Oh, my dear, that does look lovely."

The older lady turned to the sewing mistress next to her and murmured, "Her shoulders are so broad -- do something about that, will you?"

As the servant nodded and bustled off, Consuelo smiled again at Elena and turned to where Arrafin regarded her new dress with much less enthusiasm than Elena. She offered a brave smile but couldn't conceal her discomfort in the fancy clothing and tugged at a sleeve. Consuelo's smile, likewise, lost some of its gloss and she turned to another servant.

"Good heavens, there's nothing to her at all. Doesn't she eat?"

To Arrafin, she spoke more loudly.

"My dear, maybe we should try fitting that again. It's just not... quite... "

Arrafin sighed and tried to think about magic. And math. And how comfortable her old desert robes were.
 




barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Etienne fretted. Everyone had left the house, gone up to this ball at Count Elek dan Treuhoff's. He could hear echoing footsteps out in the hall as servants went about their duties, but all his new friends had left, dressed in borrowed finery and looking forward (or at least in Isaac's case, dreading) the chance to visit with the upper echelons of Pavairelle society.

Leaving him here alone.

In the house.

Where anyone could find him. The Whispers. The Nevakada. The Blood Council.

The "underworld" of Pavairelle was large, complicated and unpredictable. Numerous factions made deals, hid agendas and operated under multiple identities. The most fundamental division reflected the basic political division of the city: Kishak versus Pavairellean. Ever since the thirty-year-long Blockade had been ended by the peace agreement made by Prince del Viandour and the newly-restored-to-sort-of-life Tyrant's Shade of Kish, the city had grumbled under a Kishak governor with masses of troops stationed throughout the city. None of the city nobles were allowed to maintain standing armies larger than a few squads, so in true Pavairelle style they had immediately turned to the next best thing: assassins.

They were called "The Whispers". Secret clans of assassins, some tied by loyalty to noble patrons, others operating more independently, all of them constantly feuding with one another, joining only to battle the hated Nevakada, the secret police of the Kishak government. Deadly battles were fought on the rooftops and in the sewers of Pavairelle, battles Etienne had only ever caught rumours of.

But now he was tied up with these del Maraviez people. With Isaac's long-running feud with the del Orofin. With Elena's strange powers. With Nevid's weird connection to Isabella (who was, in Etienne's opinion, a complete and total bizotch). And Arrafin, talking to the Blood Council about sorcery.

The Blood Council.

Perhaps it was coincidence that just as he considered that strange organization, spanning the entire world, manned entirely by enigmatic Lohanese women in their signature crimson robes, the door to his room opened and in walked Kimiko Torokan. An enigmatic Lohanese woman in her signature crimson robe.

Etienne's mouth worked a few times. He wondered if he were about to die.

High Blood Sister Kimiko Torokan bowed minutely.

"Are you in pain, Etienne?"

Etienne's mouth opened and closed a few more times.

"No, Sister. A little queasy, a little shaky is all."

"I am pleased."

Watching the tall, elegant woman close the door behind her and approach the bed, Etienne struggled to direct his frantic thoughts.

"How could you... Won't people...?"

Torokan smiled.

"No one saw me come in, Etienne. Don't worry. There will be no talk."

"I didn't mean..."

"I know."

She settled herself and her elaborate robes in the chair beside the bed. Exactly where Arrafin had been sitting only an hour before. She leaned over and kissed him.

"Now. Tell me about this Arrafin and the book that she has. Tell me everything, my dear."

*****

Isaac sincerely wished he'd been poisoned instead of Etienne. Right now he'd been lying comfortably in bed with no worries beyond whether to lie on his right side or his left. Instead, he was walking up a carefully tended garden path to enter a party thrown by some Count he'd never heard of, dressed in the most ridiculous, uncomfortable, impractical outfit he'd every worn, looking (he was sure) every inch a complete buffoon, to socialize with a bunch of strangers he couldn't care less about.

And Marques expected him to find out about a shipment of muskets. Some muskets that might or might not have been offloaded from some unidentified ship last night. Some muskets that might or might not have been stolen from a del Maraviez ship on the other side of Saijadan several weeks ago. Isaac snorted. Right.

The house before them towered four stories high and stood imposing and well-lit against the early evening sky, lanterns hanging from all windows and banners showing sigils and heraldry unknown to Isaac. He found the del Maraviez colours, silver and blue, and not far away, the familiar del Orofin red and yellow. Isaac stiffened and nearly stumbled.

The thought that there might be del Orofin here had never occurred to him. He put his hand to the hilt of his father's sword and was suddenly glad he'd refused Marques' offer of a more stylish modern rapier. If del Orofin blood was to be spilt tonight, it would be by his father's sword.

*****

Arrafin's mind was racing through memories of mathematics classes as she and her friends approached the great house. The formulae she'd glimpsed in that book had enthralled her from the very first sight, and now, having spoken to Kimiko Torokan, knowing that they unlocked secret energies, she paid almost no attention to her surroundings. Indeed, she didn't even notice tripping on the flagstones, much less notice Elena's grip on her thin arm that kept her from falling.

There had to more to it than just math. She reviewed the strange equations in her mind. They seemed to cascade into each other, like complicated pathways to be negotiated, intellectual labyrinths to thread. She couldn't stop running what calculations she'd deciphered in her head, practicing the solutions which led to further equations which kept her engrossed until they entered the massive house, passing under a broad archway lined with uniformed guards and emerging into a three-story-high entrance hall, gilded and polished on every surface, the galleries filled with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, Pavairellean, Saijadani, Kishak and Naridic, all bustling and murmuring and watching the new arrivals with expressions ranging from intrigued to disdainful. Quiet, stately music played from some unseen location. Brilliant chandeliers rained dazzling light down.

Arrafin's face sent dazzling light back up as she smiled, looking up around at the surrounding finery.

"Look at all the people."

Elena had locked eyes with an extremely handsome Kishak fellow, his well-muscled body clearly revealed by his outfit, the traditional leather harness and loincloth of a Kishak soldier. His red skin gleamed and his dark, deep-set eyes watched her enter the room from the upper gallery where he stood.

"Yeah, look at them all."

*****

Nevid felt more at ease here than he had at any time since joining these madmen. He nodded to the Countess Sofia, who he'd met briefly on a trade mission with Isabella years back. A portly, well-attended man with an elaborately waxed moustachio caught the young Saijadani's attention, and Nevid recognized the man as Captain Emile Staznoyan. The famous fencing master ran Staznoyan's Academy, where Pavairelleans learned the art of the fence. Many of Pavairelle's greatest duelists were former cadets. It was also well-known that the school acted as a gathering place for Pavairellean patriots opposed to the Kishak regime.

Including, Nevid realised, the slender young man standing next to Emile. Kendorik Oparashan, the city's most notorious duelist, known and feared for his sharp temper and even sharper sword. Rumour had the death toll by his hand into the dozens. With the two men stood a woman unlike any Nevid had ever seen. Yshakan, with dark skin and dramatically chiseled facial features, she stood a head taller than either of the two men, with broad shoulders and powerfully muscled arms. Nevid lifted his eyes to hers and found her looking straight at him, studying him with as much curiousity as he studied her.

There had to be drinks about somewhere. Nevid plunged into the crowd in search of something. Anything.

*****

Isaac knocked back his second drink as Nevid scrambled clear of the press of people and ordered.

"You okay, Nevid? You look a little..."

"I'm fine. Fine. Any news on Marques' cargo? I'm fine."

One Saijadani eyebrow raised as Nevid grabbed the glass from the bartender and downed it in a single swallow.

"No. Arrafin's talking to some pasty-faced fellow claims to be a publisher."

Nevid signalled for another drink.

"Uh-huh."

He sucked that one back as well.

"Steady on, lad. It could be a long night."

Nevid spun and put his back to the bar. Isaac considered the young man's frightened expression and looked up to find three people standing facing he and his friend. The portly chap with the moustache smiled and bowed and presented the young fop beside him.

"Sir," the moustache addressed Isaac, who raised both eyebrows, "My dear friend has a personal matter that requires your attention."

Isaac looked up sharply at the sudden silence that descended upon that remark. Everyone nearby had frozen and were now watching the drama (such as it was) playing out by the bar. He shrugged.

"Your dear friend is unknown to me."

"That may be, sir, but I assure you he is in earnest."

Isaac frowned.

"If you have something to say, out with it. I've got drinking to do."

"Can it be you do not understand?"

"It can."

The moustache considered.

"You have offended my friend, sir."

"Impossible."

"Do you give me the lie?"

Something about the tension around him got through to Isaac, and he looked over the annoying foreigners once again. The moustachioed fellow seemed perfectly at ease, smiling pleasantly. The fop hadn't moved and wasn't even looking at Isaac as the conversation progressed. Instead, he was whispering something to the tall Yshakan woman beside him, who seemed to be staring rather fixedly at Nevid.

He snorted.

"I have never met your friend. I know nothing about any of this. Come to the point, man. What do you want?"

The moustache twitched above a polite smile.

"I shall be frank. You have offended my friend most gravely, and he desires satisfaction. Most particularly."

"What?"

The circle of stillness around them unravelled as Marques burst in, dragging behind him an older man with lined features twisted in a condescending sneer.

"See?" Marques slapped the man on the back, ignoring his obvious disdain. "I told you he was here. This is Isaac del Valencia. Isaac, please greet Fernando del Orofin."
 

AIM-54

First Post
Oh, cruel fates to have finished reading through at this cliffhanger!!!

But really, I commend you barsoomcore, excellent story and I love the world. The sauropod bus service...Excellent!!

I look forward to the next installment!
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
"That was quick."

Etienne looked up as his friends, a little bedraggled from their party efforts, filed into the parlour. Elena frowned at him.

"What are you doing up? I thought you were poisoned."

"I got better."

Uneasy glances passed around the group. Arrafin, oblivious to all that, plopped her slight frame into an armchair and sighed, "I'm exhausted. But I did learn some very interesting things."

"Like what?"

Isaac sat nearby to listen. Arrafin pushed herself forward and gestured with her hands as she spoke.

"Okay, first of all, it turns out that Early Naridic bears a great resemblance to Calegrian. The dropped fricative in the subjunctive mode and the abandoned glottal stop both point to a relationship PRIOR to the emergence of Middle Kishak. It's possible that some of the later translations of works like The Sayings have deliberately obscured this fact to hide Calegrian hegemonic dominance in the pre-Seven period."

"Uh-huh," Isaac frowned, "What?"

Elena interrupted as Arrafin prepared to plunge into a detailed explanation on phonetic transformations.

"More importantly, Isaac's in a duel."

This time it was Etienne who frowned.

"What?"

"Well, we've been in town for, what, nearly twelve hours now?" Elena grinned, "That's more than enough time for Isaac to irritate someone into wanting to kill him."

"Hey!"

Nevid spoke up.

"With Kendorik Oparashan. Tomorrow."

Etienne just stared.

"Well, it was nice knowing you."

Marques burst into the room, chuckling as he peeled off his stiff collar.

"Wasn't that fun? I love a good party."

Isaac stood and glared at the older man. Marques took in the glare and chuckled harder.

"Come, come, lad, it'll be fun. Not everybody gets a duel with Kendorik Oparashan."

He only chuckled even harder as Etienne stood, shaking his head.

"That's because he kills everyone who does. Isaac, you can't fight this guy. He's the best swordsman in Pavairelle, probably in all Barsoom. He's killed dozens of people, hundreds. You can't fight him. He'll kill you."

Even when Isaac's glare turned into a full-blown glower, Marques couldn't stop laughing as he said, "Of course! That's the whole idea."

*****

Dawn was still far off. Etienne lay on the warehouse rooftop and peered down through the skylight at Hector. Hector Sarachez, minor kingpin reaching for more than he could handle.

Elena had provided the details, garnered from her Kishak trooper admirer. A set of crates marked with del Maraviez crests brought ashore from a vessel owned by the Countess Sara del Istanzic. Crates that just might have been the right size to hold muskets. Crates that had been loaded into this warehouse, owned by sneak and second-rate crime boss Hector, who'd hired a bunch of off-duty Kishak soldiers to guard the place.

As guards, they weren't much. Not enough to detect Etienne scrambling up the outside wall of the warehouse, creeping across the roof and finding this skylight into the space below. Hector sat at a trestle table with his booted feet up, tossing a knife and catching it.

The very picture of a man killing time. Etienne grinned, and looked up.

The others (well, Elena, Nevid and Isaac, anyway; Arrafin had elected to stay home and study her new book) crouched on a rooftop across an alleyway.

He was about to wave discreetly and signal for them to join him when something smacked his right leg.

Looking down he saw a black shaft protruding from his calf. He frowned, then gasped as the pain hit.

He started to stand up, but a wave of dizziness washed over him. He collapsed next to the skylight. Faint footfalls approached, and he could hear the soft percussion of muffled crossbows firing. An ambush. Poisoned crossbow bolts. He was rolled onto his back and looked up into a hooded Kishak face.

Nevakada

Etienne would have groaned if he'd been able.

*****

Elena grabbed Isaac's arm.

"Okay, wait, I'm pretty sure they're not following us anymore."

"Yeah, last time you said that I almost got shot. Keep running."

*****

"You know, Etienne's probably in trouble. He might need our help."

"He's tough. He can handle himself. Besides, this is his stupid city. Everyone here's crazy."

"Isaac, you're the only Saijadani I know who gets mad when people get him into duels. Oh, and Nevid."

"Speaking of which, how'd he get so far ahead of us?"

"Less talking. More running."

*****

"You LEFT him there?"

Arrafin stared at her friends in horror.

"You just left him there to die?"

Elena scowled.

"They probably won't kill him."

Nevid nodded, agreeing.

"Not until he's told them everything about us. Then they'll kill him. And then they'll kill us."

Arrafin threw up her hands, pacing the parlour with quick strides.

"But we can't leave him there. We have to rescue him or something."

"Arrafin, it's..."

"It's what? Dangerous? Isaac."

The big Saijadani took one look at Arrafin's dark eyes flashing with indignation and surrendered.

"Alright. Alright. We'll go get him. Right."

Arrafin snatched up her heavy pistol and the four returned to the street.

*****

The sky was just beginning to show pink as they returned to the warehouse district. The streets rustled with early-morning activity; bakers starting their ovens and parties of Kishak soldiers finishing their patrols. The four would-be rescuers hurried past dozing masses of Naridic refugees, earning angry glowers from Arrafin.

"This is disgraceful! Why aren't these people being looked after?"

"It's the war, Arrafin," answered Nevid, reasonable as always, "The Kishaks invaded the Narid and these people came here. What can anyone do?"

Arrafin growled, "They can help find decent living conditions for these people."

She thought of her father or her brother forced to live like this and clamped down on the angry denunciations that came to mind.

"Let's find Etienne."

*****

Crouched again on top of the same rooftop from which they'd watched Etienne get shot, the four lay on their stomachs, peering across the alley into the lit window below. Isaac, cursing softly to himself, paid out rope in careful measures. Through the far window they could see two Pavairelleans taking turns beating Etienne. The young half-Kishak looked barely conscious, tied to a cane chair and dripping with blood.

"Okay, I think I can tie this here and use it to swing across to that building. Elena, you follow me in. Nevid, Arrafin, you stay here and shoot anything that comes around. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Okay."

Isaac looked down the row of worried faces.

"Nevid?"

"Oh. Okay. What?"

"Never mind."
 


barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Hector had never been one for heroics. At the first spray of splinters and Saijadani muscle, he bolted for the door.

"Hold them off!" he shouted over his shoulder at the heavies. And sprinted for the stairs.

Isaac shook dust and splinters off himself and had to scramble backwards as a heavy-set thug swung his steel-tipped mace. He plowed backward into a plaster wall and ducked again, cursing and grabbing for something, anything to use as a weapon. There was another crash and another spray of splinters and Elena cannoned into the man in front of Isaac, knocking him flying. She landed adroitly on her feet and swept out her sword, spinning to face the second thug.

Suddenly free to take stock of the situation, Isaac drew his own sword and looked around. He and Elena squared off against two hulking goons in a makeshift office where Etienne sat, tied to a cane chair and drooling blood. To their rear the shattered window frame bore the evidence of their sudden and dramatic entry from across the alley. Slats from the shutters lay haphazard across the floor, cracking underfoot as the four combatants shifted position.

Elena studied the guard nearest her and nodded to Isaac.

"If we don't kill them quickly Arrafin's liable to get nervous and start shooting. I don't want to be in the field of fire when."

She lunged forward, knocking her opponent's weapon up and snapping her arm back down to score a long cut across the man's chest. Isaac and the other guard stared for a second, then leapt at each other.

Isaac parried inside and twisted, caught the big Pavairellean with a knee to the stomach and then delivered an overhand cut to the back of the man's neck as he passed. His opponent fell to the broken slats at the same moment as Elena's.

She finished her sentence.

"That happens."

Isaac looked over.

"You're getting better at this."

Elena shrugged, "Not really a fair fight," she smiled one of her rare smiles, "I'm Saijadani."

"Atta girl."

The Saijadani woman grinned and then knelt to untie Etienne. The half-Kishak groaned and spat a tooth onto the floor. Isaac peered out the remains of the windowframe and waved to Arrafin and Nevid watching from the opposite rooftop. He turned back and helped Elena get Etienne upright.

"Let's get him out of here. Can you walk, Etienne?"

"Mmmph. As long as I don't need to stand."

"We'll carry you."

"That's so sweet."

Isaac bit back sarcasm and hoisted the half-conscious Etienne across his shoulders. Elena led the way out the door and down the hall. The warehouse seemed to be deserted and they made their way downstairs and into the alley where Arrafin and Nevid were waiting. Arrafin hissed at the sight of her friend's wounds.

"Are you okay, Etienne? We came as quick as we could."

"He'll be fine. But there's no crates in that warehouse. I don't know where they are."

"I do."

All five frowned at that announcement, as they couldn't place the voice in which it had been said. Nevid's frown cleared up first as he stared past the others down the alley. Elena turned and her frown disappeared as well. Arrafin leaned to one side to look around Etienne (still dangling from Isaac's shoulders) and her eyebrows rose in surprise. Isaac, chewing ferociously on his cigar, turned slowly.

"And who in the name of all that's holy are you?"

The man standing at the entrance to alley was very very large, Isaac realised as he looked up into dark glowering eyes.

"Mario Hekanyak."

Isaac shrugged. "Sorry, pal. I don't know you."

Slung over the Saijadani's shoulder, Etienne croaked, "I do."

At the looks his friends gave him, Etienne nodded. "We're in a lot of trouble."

"Not at all." Mario came forward, flanked by half-a-dozen swaggering swordsmen who did nothing to improve Isaac's mood with their posturing and sneers. But something about the big guy made Isaac cautious, so he decided to try politeness.

"So you know what we're looking for, and you know where it is, is that right, sir?"

Mario stared, his broad face impassive. He stood with intimidating stillness.

"I have the guns."

Nevid spoke up.

"Those guns are the property of the del Maraviez family. You'll make powerful friends by returning them to Marques del Maraviez."

"My price is one hundred thousand florins. Tell Marques."

The big man turned and walked away with his entourage, leaving Isaac, Elena, Etienne, Arrafin and Nevid staring after him.

"You guys must be really tired," Etienne mumbled, "I know I am and I didn't even go to the party."

*****

"A hundred thousand florins? For our own guns?"

Marques raged on the sunlit balcony where the household assembled for breakfast.

"Sir, could you yell a little quieter? Please?"

Nevid, for his part, could barely get his voice up above the faintest whisper. He watched Elena and Isaac eating sausages and bit back a groan of nausea. No more drinking. None.

Marques slammed a heavy fist down on the table, making everyone except Arrafin jump. Arrafin was absorbed in a letter addressed to her that had arrived at the house that morning. It was a single sheet of notepaper, irregularly folded, but she had done nothing but read it over and over again since opening it.

"Damn Mario. Thinks he can put me over a barrel, does he? Thinks he can put the family, the del Maraviez over a barrel?"

Dearest Child:

I have only a few moments to scribble these lines...


Etienne shambled out onto the balcony and squinted at the bright morning view across tiled rooftops to where the Inner Sea sparkled.

"Ouch. Is it possible for my eyes to be tired? And just so everyone knows, I feel like I've been poisoned enough in the last forty-eight hours. If you've laced my breakfast with arsenic, I'm not going to be amused."

The wiry half-Kishak crashed into his seat and stared blankly at Arrafin for a few seconds.

"Hey. Arrafin. You okay?"

Arrafin started and looked up from the sheet of paper, her wide eyes brimming with tears. With a clatter of crockery and furniture, she ran into the house. Everyone stared for a second.

Marques spoke with sudden gentleness.

"Her family's in Al-Tizim. I suspect she's received bad news."

He stared after her for a few seconds. With a sigh he sat down.

"Mario has the guns. Very well. It's better than Hector having the guns. At least Mario's not going to cut any deals with the Nevakada."

Etienne nodded as he shovelled food into his mouth. Nevid watched for only a brief moment, then turned away, stifling a groan. Elena sat back with her coffee and listened.

"I'm more worried about the Nevakada than I am about the guns, actually. Why are they involved? Who's behind this whole operation?"

Marques glowered at the table with such force that Isaac was tempted to look underneath to see if Nevakada agents were waiting there to disrupt their breakfast.

"Alright." Marques raised his head and considered the four at the table. "Make contact with Mario. Tell him we'll deal. Meanwhile, try to find out who's behind Hector. Isaac, your duel is at noon. Are you ready?"

"Oh, yeah. Ready like I always am."

Everyone looked up as Arrafin came out onto the balcony, her shoulder straining to support the book on sorcery.

"I'm going to the Blood Council Sanctuary. Sister Yasami is helping me with the translation."

Elena eyed the girl worriedly.

"Are you okay, Arrafin?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, really. I have to go. Yasami's waiting for me."

Arrafin crossed the balcony and descended the stairs to the street. From where he sat, Isaac could see her slight form make its way up the crowded street towards Temple Hill. He recalled the sneering disdain of Kendorik Oparashan at the party. Snooty Pavairellean with his fancy clothes and shiny boots. Isaac found himself looking forward to the coming duel.

He looked up as a maid entered.

"Your pardon, Senor. A message for Senorita de los Santos."

Elena stood, confused. The maid bowed.

"The message comes from Blood Sister Masamori. It is this: Yasami is the one."

"What?"

The maid bowed again.

"Yasami is the one."

Elena paled.

"Arrafin. She's walking into a trap."
 


barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Thanks, friend. I try to be somewhat regular in my updates, but I do have THREE story hours on the go. So it takes a while to make the rounds. But hang in there Stewardesses is almost done and Dead Man's Chest (the game) wrapped last weekend, so there's an end to that story in sight, as well.

I recommend (in addition to my own Story Hours) those of jonrog1, ledded, OldDrewId and JoshualDyal. All sources of great inspiration to me, and I'm sure they would be to you, too.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
A few points of interest. Because it's been a while since I caught up, and because I'm forgetful, I just went and cut and paste the text of the story only posts into Word so I could "read it at my leisure." The document came to 125 pages long, although the web formatting contributed to that, I'm sure, since more traditional paragraph breaks would cut it considerably.

Still that's an awful lot of story. I also, near the end, got the message that Word could no longer display the spelling and grammatical errors because there were too many. ;)

So, now when I'm done, I'll do the same for the Stewardess story hour and look for connections. Already caught the Goddess one...
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
barsoomcore said:
I recommend (in addition to my own Story Hours) those of jonrog1, ledded, OldDrewId and Joshual Dyal. All sources of great inspiration to me, and I'm sure they would be to you, too.
Yeah, well, I'm notorious for not finishing story hours. I'm not so sure I'd recommend myself. Then again, that's often because we don't finish campaigns. :heh: :(

I'll have the Dark●Matter story hour actually complete this week though; I only need one more update to finish it off. Then I can start my Dark Heritages story hour and string everyone along again.

EDIT: Dark●Matter is complete right now as we speak! Check out the link in my sig extra quick to read a complete Story Hour! :)
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Joshua Dyal said:
I also, near the end, got the message that Word could no longer display the spelling and grammatical errors because there were too many.
Okay, that's just mean.
Joshua Dyal said:
I'll do the same for the Stewardess story hour and look for connections. Already caught the Goddess one...
All I'll say is that the same character is mentioned in both Story Hours. Not necessarily by the same name...

Honestly, I don't think you have enough information yet to know what the connection is. You could speculate (which would almost certainly provide me with entertainment), but I don't think the key details have yet been released.

The Stewardess game is set about a hundred to a hundred and fifty years BEFORE Barsoom Tales. That will be a key fact in determining who's who.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Yeah, I figured it must mention someone like the Tyrant, or Whatsisname that supposedly killed the Goddess, or something. Still, I've only reread to the point where Elena meets with Kalimber, so I'm not exactly caught up and in a position to speculate yet...

And you can blame Bill Gates for his meanspiritedness. ;) Either that or all those unfamiliar words like Paraveille and Saijadan...
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
"The Shadow Realm permeates our Living World in every dimension. The Shadow Realm is a place of nothingness, of denial and eradication. It destroys everything and creates nothing. It is the darkness beyond black, beyond the depth of the night sky."

"How do I reach it?"

Arrafin leaned forward after her question. Between she and Yasami Kagarisama lay the book they'd found in the lair of... that Lohanese woman that Laughter of Stones, he of the obsidian torso and cryptic manner of speaking, had insisted was an ancient reptilian monster. Just thinking about it made Arrafin's brain bubble with the historical implications of what she was learning.

And the math.

Yasami shook her head.

"You cannot reach it. No living thing can come into direct contact with Shadow, for it is inimical to all life. Only the soul, upon death, can traverse its infinite blackness, to cross the Buried Sea of Omean and come to the final rest that awaits us all."

"What?"

*****

Elena and Isaac pounded up the cobblestone road that led to the crest of Temple Hill. Etienne had expressed a desire to help save Arrafin from the clutches of a twisted Blood Council scheme, but he was still too woozy from the multiple poisonings he'd received. Nevid had only groaned and gone back to bed.

Temple Hill, the highest point in Pavairelle, looked down on all sides to the city where it lay spread out across the peninsula. Dactyls wheeled above red tile rooftops and slim towers, their shrill cries audible over the distant rumble of the Inner Sea. To the north the cliffs of the Gap rose high above the pounding surf, and to the south the waters reached out to the horizon, flecked with white sails here and there. The Hill was crested with a sprawling garden which housed the Temple Of Spring, where yearly rites were held. The gardens sloped down on all sides, manicured and green, rising up in a tall hedge along a stone wall that surrounded the Blood Council Sanctuary.

Most cities on Barsoom had a Blood Council Sanctuary, a mysterious compound where the enigmatic women of that organization kept their secrets and preserved their mysteries. Few others ever saw the inside of such a place, and the Blood Council representatives never answered questions about their habits or lifestyles.

Isaac and Elena stood before a tall wooden gate painted dark crimson. There was no sign of a gatekeeper or a doorman of any kind. Elena shrugged and pounded her fist on the gate. The impact echoed in the space beyond with no response. They looked at each other.

"We could climb over the wall."

Isaac glowered.

"I'm already supposed to die at noon, Elena. I see no reason to advance that schedule."

"Are you afraid of the Blood Council?"

"Absolutely."

"Fair enough."

The door opened and they both jumped back. To see a slight young girl in the trademark crimson robe of the Blood Council watching them curiously. Her dark, slanted eyes spoke of exotic lands far beyond anything Elena or Isaac had ever travelled in. She bowed.

"High Blood Sister Torokan is not receiving visitors today, I'm sorry."

She began to close the door. Elena stepped forward.

"We have to speak to our friend, Arrafin al-Fasir beni Hassan. It's very urgent."

"I'm sorry. No visitors today."

She bowed again.

"We must speak with Arrafin now."

"No."

The slight young girl showed no trace of worry or concern. Her face held no expression, no clue whatsoever. Isaac growled.

"We're coming in there after our friend, sister. Don't try to stop us."

Still she showed no sign of concern.

"You will not enter our Sanctuary. It is forbidden. You will die in the attempt, I promise you."

She looked thirteen years old. She stared at Isaac, her gaze steady. Isaac swallowed.

"Will you take her a message?"

The girl bowed.

"I would be honoured to be of service, sir."

Isaac snorted. Elena grimaced, but her voice was quiet and polite.

"Please tell our friend that sister Masamori says, 'Yasami is the one.'"

The girl stared at Elena for a couple of seconds. She flicked her gaze to Isaac and then back to Elena.

"Sister Masamori says, 'Yasami is the one.' I understand. She will receive the message."

"Do you know Masamori? Or Yasami? What's going on? This involves me, you know?"

Elena's composure began to crack. She was involved in some foul conspiracy that these supercilious foreigners were protecting. She'd been BRED, or she was going to be bred, or something. Elena put up a hand to force the door open, shouting at the girl.

"What's going on with you bitches? Why won't you talk to me? I want to know what's going on? Is Arrafin okay? Is she in there? Let us in now!"

The girl just stared. Elena's effort to push open the door accomplished nothing; the door stayed exactly where it was.

"Wait here."

She closed the door. Isaac looked over at Elena. To his shock, he saw his friend fighting back tears. He looked out over the wide expanse of the city spread out below them.

"It's pretty up here. If you like this sort of thing."

*****

"What is the soul? What do you mean?"

Arrafin scribbled frantically as Sister Yasami explained. They sat on tightly-woven straw mats set in precise order in a room almost completely bare of furnishings. A latticed window opened onto a small garden, and in one corner an irregularly glazed vase held a single cherry bough.

Yasami nodded.

"At the moment of your conception, imagine that a chord was played. A set of notes, unique to you, never before played, began then and has been sustained until now. And will sustain until your death. That is your soul. The soul is a real thing, Arrafin, that can be identified and seen. And operated upon.

"It is the normal extrusion of Shadow into the Living World. Every sentient being contains a soul, a thin twisted strand of possibility like smoke from a stick of incense. It is what gives us our sense of identity. It is that within us that carries on from moment to moment. It is the origin of memory and it is the one irreducible atom of the self.

"That is Shadow's nature. It is unchanging. Constant. As we grow, everything about us changes. Our appearance, our opinions, our abilities. And yet we retain a sense that we do not change, that we remain the same individual throughout our life. Why is this so? Because within us, each of us, we carry a vestige of Shadow that never transforms.

"Upon our death, it is that vestige that makes the final voyage about which we can know nothing until our time comes. But while we live, we can draw upon the nature of our soul to work our will upon the power of Shadow."

Arrafin looked up.

"But you said Shadow is unchanging. If it never changes, how can we act on it? Doesn't it ignore everything we do?"

"Indeed it does. One cannot change Shadow. But when Shadow comes in direct contact with the Living World, all rules are erased. For an instant, all things are possible, but if Shadow's touch is not withdrawn, all things will be annihilated. This is sorcery -- to open a door to Shadow, only to slam it shut in that same instant, and as reality is erased, to enforce one's will upon the apocalypse."

"Apocalypse? That doesn't sound so good."

"Shadow is death. To contact it, even indirectly, is to come face-to-face with nothingness. With the denial of all. I misspoke slightly -- one does not open a door. Imagine more that one peels away layers of oiled cloth sealing up a window until the faintest bit of light begins to penetrate the fibers. Shadow oozes through our souls like water seeps through loose soil. Through the workings of sorcerous formulae, our minds create patterns and enforce order upon that potential chaos. By performing these calculations in our heads, in the exact rhythm and order defined, we can cause Shadow's impact on the Living World to direct itself, to generate specific effects.

"To perform magic."

They both looked up as a portion of one wall slid aside. Arrafin hadn't yet gotten used to the doors in this place; all the walls looked identical to her but it seemed that certain portions of each were intended as doors and slid aside with a simple push. In the opening she recognized High Blood Sister Kimiko Torokan.

Torokan had first examined the book and agreed to teach Arrafin the secrets it held. She had been then, and remained now, a tall, forbidding woman of severe appearance, with a stern expression and unreadable eyes.

In other words, she was practically identical to every other Blood Sister Arrafin had ever seen.

She spoke in some language Arrafin didn't understand and Sister Yasami rose, bowed to Arrafin, and left the room. Torokan stared at Arrafin for a second.

"Please wait here, Arrafin. I will return."

She closed the door.

Arrafin sat, looking around the room, and when it became apparent that nobody was going to immediately join her, she pulled the book over to her and began comparing it with the translated notes Yasami had provided. The complex formulae fascinated her. Within seconds she was lost in trying to decipher the symbols and equations. She looked up at a sudden scream. It was repeated once, and then twice more. Arrafin couldn't tell where it was coming from, but it didn't sound very far away.

There was silence for a while. Arrafin sat perfectly still, suddenly aware that she was alone, surrounded by agents of some organization she knew nothing about, where her friends couldn't possibly find her.

"There she is. Arrafin. Are you okay?"

She looked up to find Isaac and Elena studying her from the open doorway. Sister Torokan stood behind them.

"Come with me, please."

*****

Arrafin kept throwing up. She couldn't help it. Only moments ago she'd been sitting across from Yasami, talking with her, learning from her.

Now her life spilled onto the stone floor from the stump of her neck. The stink of blood and urine filled the room.

Elena and Isaac fared only a little better. They turned, a little wild-eyed, as Torokan stood beside them.

"Yasami was the one."

Sister Yasami hung upside down, suspended from her spread ankles. Her naked body ran with glistening blood. Her head had been removed and was nowhere to be seen and blood still trailed from her gaping throat. Hooks dug into her skin.

Torokan spoke quietly.

"I have known her all my life. We studied together as children. And she has betrayed us all."

Elena shook her head in disbelief.

"You people are animals."

The tall Lohanese woman scoffed.

"You are the animals. You are the ones who live your lives in ignorance, unaware of the forces that move in the darkness. We are the humans. We are the ones who defend you against evil you cannot imagine. We are the ones who take on the burden.

"Matai Shang destroyed this woman as he has destroyed so many of our order."

"Did you have to kill her? Like this?"

"I have done this. This crime is mine. There is no power but mine."

They listened cautiously to Torokan's sing-song words. Other women had come into the circular chamber where they stood, and they repeated the High Sister's words.

"I have done this. This crime is mine. There is no power but mine."

Torokan turned to the three friends.

"Matai Shang is a sorcerer from our land who seeks control over our order. He turns us against ourselves and undermines our faith and our purpose. The Blood Council faces an internal war.

"Arrafin, your study with us is over. Learn what you can on your own. My presence is no longer safe. Do not seek help from this order, for any one of us may have been corrupted by Matai Shang.

"Elena, it is Shang who took your life from you. He perverts the secrets of the Blood Council and seeks only power for himself. We can no longer protect you. Masamori is dead this morning, found by agents of Shang."

Isaac spoke up.

"Fine. Where is this evil son of a coyote? Obviously you want us to take care of him for you, so give us the details. Where is he? How tough is he and how do we defeat him?"

Torokan lost her icy expression, bewildered by Isaac's question. Then she laughed.

"No, little man. You can do nothing. This fight is not yours. This foe is beyond you. I bring you here only to warn you to stay clear of our order. To understand the seriousness of this struggle. Leave now."

"But aren't we the good guys?"
 

ledded

Herder of monkies
barsoomcore said:
Thanks, friend. I try to be somewhat regular in my updates, but I do have THREE story hours on the go. So it takes a while to make the rounds. But hang in there Stewardesses is almost done and Dead Man's Chest (the game) wrapped last weekend, so there's an end to that story in sight, as well.
And good stuff they all are, I still don't know how you keep 3 story hours up and running.

I recommend (in addition to my own Story Hours) those of jonrog1, ledded, OldDrewId and JoshualDyal. All sources of great inspiration to me, and I'm sure they would be to you, too.
Thanks for the nod!

Keep the good stuff coming man.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
For those put off by the thought of scrolling through endless pages of reader comments and so on (though I always find those part of the fun of reading Story Hours), I've compiled the first two Cantos of Barsoom Tales into text files and attached them to the first post.

We're closing in on the climax of Make It There, so hold on to your hats...

New post for Dead Man's Chest is on its way, too. Soon. Very soon...
 


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