Re: Lay Me Low
Posted: Thu Oct 17, 2013 3:20 pm
This far away from the ruins of Southshore, the corruption of the Sludge Fields was barely noticeable. There were more crows than sparrows, and the trees had lost their leaves in early autumn, but the old manor house was not yet the fetid wasteland of greater Hillsbrad. The walls were rotten to the heartwoods, and patches of ivy and the odd small tree had overgrown the outer grounds. But the suggestions of former glory were still visible, in the tall roofs with their hollow gables, the broad sprawl of the now-uninhabitable wings, and most of all the husk of the central manor, three stories of fitted stone and carved wood that even time and misfortune couldn’t completely tear down.
There were signs of repair and use -- windows on the top floors had been removed and replaced with makeshift arrow slits, the walls on the first floor had been crudely patched and reinforced. Holes had been dug at regular intervals for a fence or another wall. Above the manor’s broad doors, where once might have hung the watchful wolfhound of the manor’s makers, was a tattered banner bearing the half-faced sigil of the Banshee Queen. Her Majesty’s soldiers had a wide territory to watch, and only so many places to shelter as they did so.
Sleep not being a requirement for the Forsaken, but idleness absolutely a requirement for soldiers, most of the patrol was inside playing at dice. The one guard outside was neither cold nor hungry, but she shivered and cursed her ill luck anyway, because like the rest of the soldiers, she was a creature of habit and tradition.
She didn’t get a good look at the figure strolling out of the fog, a man (or big woman, she supposed), on foot. Could be grey, could be pink, hard to say, but there was only one of him or her so it didn’t worry her any. “Hold!” she called into the fog. “What’s your business, traveller?”
The figure slowed, and kept coming close enough she could see he was a man, bulky in plate-and-chain, a sword hanging loose in his hand. “Reunion,” he said, in a voice made hollow by his helm. “Resurrection.”
The Deathguard scowled and placed a hand on her sword-hilt. “I’ve no time for horseshit. State your name, man, and put your sword on the ground.” The man halted, a good twenty paces away, easily far enough to sound the alarm if he kept coming.
“You know my name,” he said. “The stones are scribed with it. The wood is wrought with it. The ground you stand on has borne it for eight hundred years.” The Forsaken narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to call for the patrol, and the traveller raised his free hand and said something incomprehensible.
The next she knew, she was wrenched through the air towards him, pulled like a toy in a careless child’s hand. Ebon Blade, she had time to think before their bodies met with a jarring clash of metal, and a searing pain in her chest registered itself on her deadened nerves. She looked down to where the sword had pierced her breastplate, pierced her flesh and bones, maybe even come out the other side. “Shit,” she said, sucking air into broken and deflating lungs.
“My name,” the traveller told her, “Is the master of the house. And you trespass.” She looked up into the face beneath the helm. Pink, not grey, with startling eyes. They were blue, or seemed like they ought to have been. But as she looked, she could swear that the black dots of his pupils were far too wide. Like ink-blots on a letter.
“That’s weird,” she murmured, as the sword exited her chest, leaving a gaping gash beneath her collarbone. Her ill-used body folded around the empty space, flesh and bones collapsing inward on withered organs, and she crumpled to the ground as the armored man strode over her, moving easily and decisively. Almost like he’d been here before.
The Lord Balthasar came home wrapped in iron and winter, with the wind for his herald. There was no court to greet him but seven corpses, ringed about a game of dice in the great hall where his ancestors had dined. They hurtled to their feet as he entered, kicked aside coins and drew their steel, shouting questions and demanding answers.
He simply stood, breathing in the scent of corruption, the rot that had come to his house. “All is well,” he told the old stones, the rotted wood, the ghosts he knew were listening. “All is well, and all shall be well. I’ve come back.” One of the shouting corpses filled the stale air between them with arcane sparks. The Lord Balthasar watched them sizzle and crackle towards him, slow and lazy, and then snuffed them out like candles.
Then he was among the dead men, sword leading him through their tattered ranks, the ancient rune-words like honey on his tongue. And the house joined him, with the darkness of its eaves and corners reaching out to swallow their unwelcome guests. The Lord Balthasar laughed and chanted as he slew, and the house laughed with him, and together they cleansed the great hall.
When it was done, he flung his helm aside and seated himself at the high table, surveying the destruction. “Shameful,” he pronounced. “Shameful, the condition we’ve let this place fall into. But there’s time enough to set it to rights.” He clapped his hands with a clash of metal. “I’ll have wine! Up, you laggards, you slugabeds, there’s work to be done!”
At first there was silence, and then, one of his courtiers rose from the pool of her own black blood. She shuffled through the hall, eyes vacant, one limb hanging loose by a thread of sinew and cracked bone. The Lord Balthasar watched her go, frowning. That one shan’t last. But so be it; one had to do one’s best with what was offered.
“Only for now,” he murmured, his blackened eyes surveying the broken hall. He could already see it: the floors polished, the walls hung with banners and tapestries, wood blazing in the great fireplaces. There would be fresh wooden tables, heaped with food and drink, and all about them would sit his loyal men and women. And here, at the high table, his family; the House of Balthasar reborn.
They will come. They will come, to take back what was lost. The Lord Balthasar settled into his seat and waited for his wine, his naked sword across his lap, smiling sternly, head held high.
Re: Lay Me Low
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 11:07 am
It’s roomier in the observers’ box than it ought to be, with the seven of them crammed in here. This structure was built with Pandaren bodies in mind, not the assorted passel of humans, elves, and deaders standing shoulder to shoulder to watch the proceedings. Threnn and Tirith have most of the front row to themselves: it’s their man on trial. The Rooks are mostly sticking around to get paid, so they’ve ceded the prime viewing spot without argument.
Only one of their number is in the front, simply because three-and-four is a more comfortable configuration than two-and-five, Pandaren dimensions or no. This one stands on Threnn’s right, and he and Tirith keep leaning back and exchanging odd glances behind her. She hopes neither is about to pull a blade; the Riders are already far enough in the shit with the Shado-Pan as it stands. She adjusts her bracer, making sure Tirith sees the gesture and the question hidden within: Do we have a problem?
He shakes his head, then reconsiders and gives her the sign for I’ll let you know. It will have to be good enough.
The Shado-Pan, by the way, are arranged around this cavernous room, a dozen of them ringing the man and the monk at the center. They’ve commandeered a space deep in the Temple of the White Tiger, one she suspects is usually filled with the sounds of monks engaged in honorable combat. The only battle today is one of wills. She feels guilty hoping Tarquin will cede, like the thought is traitorous somehow, but she has an idea what will happen if he doesn’t.
Whether it’s by design or coincidence, Threnn has no way of knowing, but Diao Zhi is among the Shado-Pan guard positioned near the observers’ box. She doesn’t have much of a read on the Pandaren woman -- come by the Pig a few times, hasn’t been fazed by the regulars; taught Bricu about meditation and introduced him to Light knows how many new kinds of tea -- but her presence is appreciated. Not to say that Diao will take their side should shit be introduced to fan, but, well. The Bittertongue motto is While I live, hope. Can’t find a much better application than right here.
Tarq’s been beaten to shit. The bruises on his face make Threnn’s fingers itch, but the monks wouldn’t let her talk to him, let alone heal him. It makes sense, in a way. If Anna was right and it was Pride pulling his strings, surely facing the Shado-Pan with the evidence of his recent ass-kicking on display would make the infection rear its head.
He sits there calmly, though, has been sitting for near on an hour now, looking across the smoke at Liu Tao like a man awaiting a magistrate’s verdict. The Man They Couldn’t Hang, the boss is called in Stormwind, but the Shado-Pan will do worse than hanging if it means eradicating the Sha. Tarq’s discomfort is there, if you know what to look for: the minute shifts of position as he tries easing his bruises off the cold, hard floor; the sheen of sweat on his brow; the absence of his usual confident grin.
No, Tarquin ap Danwyrith looks like a man who might truly feel the noose around his neck, and that means he’s taking this utterly fucking seriously.
There’s blood on his face, some of it his own. It’s caked and dried in his pale hair, too, and fresh stains darken his leathers. He’s given no indication of who did it, who turned him over to the Rooks, and that particular company isn’t talking.
Threnn’s locked eyes with them a few times now. The handsome man beside her who can’t stop glowering at Teeth; the one behind her -- priest? mage? she can’t be sure by his robes -- with the silver jaw; the Sin’dorei woman, who she heard referred to as Dame Joyful and looks nothing of the sort. The lanky troll won’t look her way, too absorbed in the trial to take up the challenge of Threnn’s gaze. But the last, the one she figures is their leader…
He’s watching his crew, watching the proceedings, and when Threnn has twisted around, he’s been watching her as well. Those golden eyes have a grim mirth in them, and she can just barely see the quirk of his grin beneath that drooping mustache. He spreads his hands now, as if to say This is just business, you understand, and she notices he’s missing two fingers. Threnn shrugs, and wonders if he can read murderous intent in the arch of her brow. Sure, she understands business. She’s a Professional, after all.
But that means she understands grudges, too. The Rooks brought him in as a bounty, sure, but they’re too eager for this to be about a payday alone. This is personal to them.
So she memorizes their faces, and any hints of names she can get beyond that of their company, and tucks them away in case this all goes south.
A pair of students bring a heavy wooden box out to Liu Tao. It’s banded with metal and inlaid with ivory. Reliefs of the Monkey King are carved into its sides. The students open the lid, and from within, Liu Tao withdraws a set of masks. Some of them she’s seen before, their faces twisted into wails of despair or snarls of anger. One seems newly-made, its features smug. Tarq’s eyes track the last one, but Liu Tao waves each over the brazier’s smoke.
“I’d the mind ta be a wizard fir Hallow’s End,” Tarq says, “but I s’pose it’s a fair second prize.”
The Shado-Pan do not laugh, and he makes no further attempts at banter.
One by one, Liu Tao places the masks over Tarquin’s face. Threnn gets the feeling the first six are for show, or simply must be worn in adherence to ritual: with each of them, nothing happens. Neither Liu Tao nor his students seem surprised; Tarq merely seems bored. Were it Bricu in that circle, he’d have snapped at them to get the fuck on with it already. Threnn herself might have done the same. But there’s something of the showman in Tarquin, and although it means sitting through half an hour of not a godsdamned thing happening, he rolls with it.
It might also have something to do with that seventh mask, and what it will mean if something does happen.The preceding six buy him time. That’s their true value, at least to the three in this room wearing the Black and Red.
Liu Tao takes the last mask from the box. His hands shake as it clears the lid, but they’re steady by the time he holds it up to Tarquin’s face. Tarq’s eyes roll to Threnn and Tirith before he leans into the wood. He’s too nervous to smirk, and a wink would be outright rude, here in this solemn sanctuary. But he’s willing to risk a quirked brow, one she thinks reads Could be worse, couldn’t it? -- and then the mask covers his features. It’s too big for him, the carving made for Pandaren dimensions, but it sticks all the same.
And then they wait.
The minutes drag by as everyone does their version of waiting apprehensively. Liu Tao and his students might as well be statues, for how little they move. The Shado-Pan shift from time to time, techniques Threnn herself knows and employs even now: soldiers on a long watch, keeping limbs from going numb as they stand their posts. Diao Zhi looks her way now and then, but whether the ritual is going well or poorly, Threnn can’t glean from the woman’s stance.
Beside her, Tirith is still except for his gaze. It flicks around the room taking everyone’s measure. Likely he’s figuring how to take each of them out, in what order, in what manner. Then he does it again.
The only reason she knows the Rooks are restless is how uncannily they remind her of the Riders. Small movements, the clearing of a throat, the creak of leather as a knife is eased in its sheath (but not removed, oh no. Were that the case, Tirith would have responded in kind. He’s still calculating, though, so she lets it go.) Threnn feels the glow of the Light as one of them -- the slickear or the priest? -- draws it in. Making their own assessment, she figures. She’s tempted to do the same, but doesn’t dare disrupt the ritual. The mercenaries might be forgiven for holding magic during the proceedings, but not one of Tarquin’s allies.
It’s a long bloody time before Liu Tao holds his hands over the smoking brazier, possibly as long as the first six masks combined. Tarq has sat quietly through all of it, though his shoulders have dropped from the rigid set of the soon-to-be condemned to the insouciant slouch of the Boss in his chair. That’s about when Threnn knows it’s going to be all right.
The mask falls into Liu Tao’s outstretched hands. Beneath it, Tarq is grinning. It likely ought to be charming, but all the blood and bruises on his face give it a sinister edge. “We done here, then?” he asks.
Liu Tao scowls, but nods. “We find no trace of the sha in you,” he says, “at least, not beyond anything any of us have encountered here since the mists descended.” He offers no apology, makes no mention of the misunderstanding, no overtures to rescind the false accusation. He doesn’t beckon anyone forth to come heal Tarquin, and his students pay the battered man no attention as they pack up the masks, secure the box, and help the monk to his feet.
The Rooks shift behind her, the fluttering of their cloaks like ruffled feathers. Living up to the moniker, Threnn thinks. If they’re going to attack, it will be now. If someone paid them to make sure Tarq doesn’t walk out of this room, this is when they’ll make their move.
Tirith must feel her tense, but either can’t restrain his curiosity or is merely eager to cut to the chase. He leans across her to tap the handsome man on his arm. “Did I drown you, once?” he asks, and Threnn thinks Here we go.
But the slickear reaches out and touches the man’s shoulder before he can respond with banter or blade. “Peace, Brandal,” she says, and gods, Threnn knows that tone. How many times has she used it on Bricu, on Illi, on Kyr? It doesn’t endear the slickear woman to her, but she has to admit, it’s helpful having another voice of reason in the room, especially when Threnn herself was ready to fight this one out.
Then Diao is there, leading Threnn out of the box and to the center of the room, where Tarq still sits. Nearly everyone else has filed out -- Liu Tao, his students, most of the Shado-Pan -- and Tarq’s in the middle, legs akimbo, blood still on his face. It ought to look pathetic and lonely, and maybe it does, but there’s something in the way he’s sitting there -- free of the noose again -- that reminds her of a king on his throne. Or a crimelord in his tavern. Either. Both.
Tarq accepts the hand up, but waves her off when she pulls the Light into her hands. “No’ yet, Threnny,” he mutters. “They’ll see me walkin’, even after…” He narrows his eyes. “Fuckin’ turncloak,” he says, but he’s leading her back toward the Rooks, and doesn’t explain to whom he might be referring.
Diao and Threnn exchange a glance, and follow in Tarquin’s wake.
The three reach the observers’ box as a clerk, one of the last Pandaren in the room, hands a fat purse to the man named Brandal. He hefts it, nods his grudging satisfaction, and passes it to his boss.
“Well paid fir it, Bloodcrow?” asks Tarq. He leans on the rail and pats his pockets, exhumes a crushed cigarette from within the depths of one.
The mustachioed man shrugs. “We fulfilled our end of the contract and were compensated. Not every employer throws in a bonus.” He doesn’t say that the bonus in this case would be Tarq dead or imprisoned here in Pandaria; he doesn’t have to.
Tarq mirrors the shrug and pats again, looking for a match. “There’ll be other jobs. Best yeh fuck oaf an’ go find some.”
It ought to start a brawl, that dismissal and the threat nestled within. In Stormwind, it would. But it’s been a long day for all of them, a long couple of days, probably, and no one wants to piss off the Shado-Pan where they can pour out of the walls like marbles spilling from a jar, should violence erupt. Bloodcrow reaches into his own tobacco pouch and passes Tarquin a match, then makes his exit.
The others follow, Brandal glaring at Tirith the whole way.
“Shorel’aran,” the Sin’dorei woman says.
Reflexively, Threnn responds: “Light bless.” Fucking slickears.
Then it’s just the four of them in this empty, echoey room. Tarq inspects the match, seems to decide it’s not coated in poison, and lights his smoke. “Maybe now, Threnny,” he says, “wi’ the layin’ oan ay hands.” He looks around and frowns. “Less ay n audience’n I’d thought.”
“Bricu told us to sit the fuck tight,” supplies Tirith. His fingers flex, as they might were he holding a man underwater.
“Guid. An’ where is Bric’? He piss oaf yir chiefs too?” That last to Diao.
The monk shakes her head. “No. He didn’t even argue when they denied him his request to see you. He was very well-behaved.” She smiles a bit at that; she’s seen him at his surliest, was one of the ones denying him tobacco and replacing it with tea.
“Right.” Tarq lets Threnn help him ease down onto a supply crate Tirith has dragged over for a seat. “Where’s he off ta, then?”
Threnn meets his eyes, finds his gaze sharp despite the pain. “He’s off with Anna,” she says. “Tying up loose ends.”
Re: Lay Me Low
Posted: Tue Oct 22, 2013 10:07 pm
Home To Roost
The bastard and the bard landed in Chillwind Point in the middle of the night, armed and hard-faced. The flight-master asked no questions, and they offered no explanations as they set into Forsaken territory. They followed the river through the foothills, skirting around Tarren Mill, and then crossed it north of the road by way of Elune’s blessings. By the time they hit the open ground in Hillsbrad, Bricu knew where Annalea’s makeshift compass was taking them, and who they’d find there. They reached the old Balthasar manor just after dawn, unseen by Forsaken patrols or fellow travellers.
The ironbound oak doors to the manor house were not sealed. One hung off its hinges, the other was buckled and splintered. The body of an armored man lay just a few feet behind the door, in a puddle of his own black blood. Bricu carefully levered the corpse over with his sword, revealing the grey and withered face of a Forsaken. His breastplate was sliced clean through, the edges of the metal crumpled about the gash like paper.
“Strewth.” Bricu said. “That with the wee beastie’s help or did he do this his ownself?” He took a few cautious steps forward in the manor.
Annalea mmphed. “The beastie isn’t so wee anymore. I can feel it. I don’t think Jak’s in control of his infection.”
“Would it really matter if he was, lass?” Bricu said.
Annalea shook her head. Grim fury was written in her stance. “No.”
The continued down the grand hallway, where portraits and statues once showed the glory of the Balthasar line. Now cobwebs and dust collected in the deserted halls. There were signs of a recent struggle--where the collected detritus was spilled across the floor, gouges cut into the walls. Annalea pointed to them the way a tracker might in a forest.
At the end of the corridor, a doorway opened into the great hall. “There,” said Annalea, in a whisper barely louder than the sound of her own breath. “He’s inside.” Bricu nodded, studying the battered door. His hands moved busily, his lips whispered a prayer in the dead language of the North, and at the end of it he lifted a pair of new-rolled cigarettes. He lit his own, and handed the second to Annalea, who tucked it behind her ear for later.
Bricu donned his gauntlets. “Let’s end this, sister-dear,” he said.
The hall could have held dozens in its heyday, with trestle tables ranked end to end beneath its vaulted ceilings, and huge fireplaces set into each wall. A dais was raised at the back of the room, so the Balthasar family proper could overlook their feasting servants and soldiers. Now the tables were rotted and broken and kicked aside, the fireplaces empty and the air crisp with unnatural chill. Coils of cold smoke reached through the room and brushed the distant ceilings, reaching out like spokes from a central point -- the lord’s dais. It was ringed with bodies, more Forsaken soldiers, battered and mangled like a child’s toys. Bricu counted seven or eight in the brief moment he could spare for them.
Jakob Balthasar sprawled in the old oak seat at the center of the dais, his runeblade laid across his thighs and his open-faced greathelm dangling from one arm of the chair, head sunk meditatively with his chin to his chest. He might have been another corpse himself, still and silent in the seat of his ancestors, but in the echo of Bricu’s metal-shod feet he spoke without moving. “Sir Bittertongue. So it’s you.”
“It’s us. Surely yeh didn’t think I’d step on Annie’s toes here.” The lit end of Bricu’s cigarette, guttering in the unnatural cold, flared as he took a long draw and nodded his head in Annalea’s direction.
“Your good-sister?” The knight still didn’t move, and under the hall’s vaulted ceiling, his voice seemed to be coming from all corners from the room. “Come to play us a tune, Miss Al’Cair? Or did you bring the poisoned apples?”
Anna peered around the room, as if imagining it in its grand old days -- the feasts, the balls, the music. “It’s a shame,” she said, “I didn’t bring my lute. But I can sing you a dirge, if you’d like.”
Jakob lifted his head slightly, his lank hair still hanging in front of his face. “You should not have come. This place isn’t yet fit for company.”
“Och, squire. Ne’er mind yer worry ‘bout company. We’re just here t’help clean out the rats." Bricu, his sword drawn, ambled further into the room with insouciant ease.
“Rats. You’ve a gift for poetry, old man.” Still Balthasar didn’t look up. He seemed almost drowsy, with his arms dangling limp, speaking with the dreamy tone of a man musing over some many-layered poem or complex mathematical question. “Had I the men, I’d have come down on your captain with fire and sword and hung his smirking head above my gates.”
Bricu shook his head. “But since yeh couldn’t lead a troupe o’ducklings down the road, yeh decided ta attack the man in his own home? That’s the honor o’the Old North right there, yeh radge fuck.” He pointed at at Jakob with the half-finished cigarette, like a teacher’s stick to indicate an unruly pupil.
Balthasar finally lifted his head to regard them both straight on. His eyes were wide and black, all the way through, like two globules of oil; they seemed ready to leak from his face. “You had to have known this day would come. Both of you! All of you!” He straightened in the seat of his ancestors, as if he’d come awake, sneering at the pair of criminals below
Anna snorted. “Oh, fucking spare me.” It seemed incongruous, for a woman clad in the pristine white robes of a priestess of Elune to be swearing like a dockworker on payday. But this was dark and dirty business, not an evening at court. “Poor Jak Balthasar, surrounded by thieves and ne’er-do-wells, is this it? No free will of your own to say no to your wife--”
“Don’t speak of her, Miss Al’Cair,” Jakob warned her, “It’ll go poorly for you.”
Her voice climbed, until it rung from the rafters: the bard in her element. “--to your own wife, if not to Tarq’s invitation? Didn’t have the stones to just walk away, if this life chafed your soft noble arse so sorely?” Balthasar rose to his feet in a single motion, sword gripped in one gauntleted hand, murder in his tarry stare. If Annalea was cowed, she didn’t show it; even took a step forward, her smirk widening.
“I’d answer the clever woman, boyo.” Bricu said, flanking Annalea with his own grin widening. “Otherwise, she’ll write yer words for yeh.”
“Of course she will.” The death knight’s laugh echoed off the ruined walls like cracking ice, but there was no humor in his face as he levelled his sword at them. “As you wrote mine. As you wrote my wife’s. I watched Yva damn herself, and you whoreson scum did nothing but count your coins and smile.”
Bricu’s smirk faded. He pushed his helmet back, ensuring that the enchanted Shado-pan gift was secure, and squared his feet as if he was preparing to dance. The tip of his sword was still pointed towards the ground, but he changed the grip so the blade was now facing Jakob.
“Elune, can you hear yourself? You watched,” said Anna. “And did fuck-all to fix it. So fast to complain how everyone threw their nightsoil all over you, but tell me, then, why did you keep standing below our windows?” She gave him no time to answer. “It’s because you’re weak, Jak. Fucking weak, and now look at you. The Lord of the once-great House of Balthasar, about to be brought low by a drunk and a whore.”
Bricu, with the instincts of an old soldier, saw it first, and spat the cigarette from his mouth. Then the darkness about Jakob swelled, purple-black and somehow bloated, as if it had depth and mass; his face a mask of rage, the last lord of Balthasar put forth his hand and spat ancient words in a tongue deader than the bodies scattered about him. Come. Obey. Kneel. And with a warping of the air between them, Annalea Al’Cair’s feet left the ground and she took sudden flight to within his reach.
But Annalea plunged smiling through the air, darkness coiling around her, and what the death knight caught was more shadow than substance. She reached out, heedless as Jakob brought his runeblade to bear, and clapped her hands to his forehead. “Got you, you fucker!” she crowed. The sword came down on her defenses with a sound like shattering glass, sending her back reeling but smiling, wisps of a shadow darker than her own attendant on her passage. And then Bricu was between them.
“Oh no, boyo.” Bricu said. With one fluid motion, he darted forward and caught Jakob’s blade with his own. Bricu’s sword rode the length of the runeblade, up to the hilt, so the northmen could look each other in the eye. “This is our dance.”
Jakob brought his runeblade up into guard. “You smirking thug, you’ll eat your mockery.” He bulled forward, sending Bricu back on his heels, and hacked at him with both hands, leaving a bright gash along his armor. With the blow came the bite of a shocking cold, enough to make Bricu gasp and stagger. The death knight smiled mirthlessly, reached back to the arm of his seat for his helm, and dropped it onto his head.
Across the yard from the northmen, Annalea held a darkly pulsing crystal, the spoils of one of Kyraine’s expeditions. There was a crack at its heart, allowing thin tendrils of shadow to spiderweb out into the room, toward Jak. “I’ve got it pinned, Bric'! Exorcise the damn thing!”
“It’s not a bloody demon, Annie! It won’t work that way!” Bricu said. Balthasar came at him again, a flickering strike that he caught with a cross-parry. But the cold slowed his counter and Jakob struck again, and again, and yet again; high, and higher, and then low across the torso, where all Bricu could do was brace for the blow and trust in his armor. Metal screeched on metal, with another surge of vicious cold.
“Pathetic,” Jakob told him, his black eyes almost merry. He feinted and aimed another high cut at Bricu’s face, this one leaving a glittering arc in its wake as the paladin called on the light to protect him. “Is the Oathbreaker’s killer? His good right hand?” Balthasar had always been fast, and strong, and precise as only a man who’d given his childhood to the sword could be. But that man hadn’t had the purple-black darkness trailing his movements, a stain at the edge of Bricu’s vision, granting the death knight a force he hadn’t had even in the Northern War. Another cut into cross-parry, this one nearly forcing Bricu to his knees, and Jakob laughed in his face.
From where she lurked, Annalea sounded a single note, bright and clear over the clash of swords. Jakob’s sword arm slowed, as if tugged by hooks, and Bricu seized the chance with all the speed his chilled muscles could muster. His blade shrieked off the knight’s armored chest, but he stepped into Jakob’s riposte, robbing it of its force, and shoved with his free hand. Jakob stumbled back from the inelegant assault, and Bricu cut at him again, savaging his fine old armor and tearing a shallow gash into the flesh beneath. Balthasar snarled and moved to guard, a little slower, like his joints were caked with mud. “It’s the left yeh need ta watch,” Bricu told him.
They clashed again, and Annalea continued her song. It soared up and down her register, each note woven into the next. They weren’t quite words, exactly, but neither were they simple scales; like a conversation on the edge of hearing, they hinted at a meaning even as they hid it. As proud and punctuated as any march, but the high trills she wove into it hinted at something darker, atonal and unsettling. Jakob’s bloated shadow writhed and pulsed in time with the song, and where he faltered, Bittertongue struck.
Slowed as he was by the unnatural cold, Bricu was still quicker than he looked. He hounded Jakob, shoving at him with knees and elbows, grinning that infuriating grin and hacking hard at every opening. The death knight’s counters met glimmering golden resistance harder than armor, and all the while the bard sang. In a minor key now, making the proud song tinny and petty, like a child’s boast. The Sha twisted and pulled away -- towards Annalea.
Darkness flowing out of him and pooling at his heels, Jakob barely parried a blow that drove him reeling backwards. He flicked out his free hand, curled it into a claw, and spat a curse in the old tongue. All at once Annalea’s song was choked off, grey mist puffing from her mouth, her hands clapped to her throat as she dropped to her knees. The inky mass surrounding Jakob pulsed and twisted, and the death knight raised himself up to catch Bricu’s next strike on his gauntlet. “Better,” he said. “You deserve a moment of silence.” Now he moved to attack, quick and unfettered, with winter’s bite in every strike of his sword and darkness pooling in the joints of his armor.
Within three lightning blows, Bricu was back on his heels, the Light flickering hastily across his armor. Balthasar swept aside a parry with contemptuous ease, feinted high, and drove a backhand into the paladin’s thigh. Bricu’s foot skidded, hit one of the corpses scattered across the room, and went out from under him. He took a knee, the next butcher’s cut flicking off his broad-brimmed hat with a force that nearly unwove the enchantments, and barely got his sword up to block the next one.
When the warmth begin to spread across his chest, Bricu wondered at first when he’d been cut again. But he recognized it soon enough -- the ache of his bruises and sore muscles dulled, the gash across his arm faded to a numb pulse. “Hey, fuckwit!” came a hoarse voice from behind the death knight. Jakob gave ground, sword raised to guard, and glanced back warily. Annalea stood, her neck bruised by invisible fingers, but her own hands weaving a cat’s-cradle of glimmering Light. “Shouldn’t you know better than to take your eyes off a pissed-off woman?”
Bricu pushed himself off the ground, unhampered by the death knight’s icy curse, and charged forward. Balthasar spun back and brought his sword to guard, but Bricu stayed low and hacked upwards, a broad sweeping strike with all his momentum behind it. He forced the death knight’s guard up, then back, and then slammed a plated shoulder into him. This time, Jakob’s feet found a corpse, and he went sprawling over the top of it. Bricu moved after him, stepping over the corpse and moving nimbly behind the death knight. Jakob pulled himself up, spitting more ancient words. “Aic agol! Nem theanga, kynaugh--” Bricu’s sword came down in a vicious arc across his back, crumpling armor and unweaving spells, slapping him back to the ground. He rolled over and gasped out “Beorga,” but Bricu withstood the cold, gritting his teeth, a sheen of Light still playing over him.
“Get up.” The Bittertongue stood just out of Jakob’s reach, no smile under the shadow of his helm, eyes hard. “Get up, yeh fuckin’ turncoat. Meant ta be a knight, aren’t yeh? Get up an’ die like one.”
Jakob Balthasar lay on his back, head half-craned up, mouth moving almost soundlessly. He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. “Not...not you, though, Bittertongue. Poor bloody infantry to the end of your days.”
“Aye, too fuckin’ right.”
“Then you’ll be in good company. Bor kynaugh, bor vrum golthalgos,” and as the words hissed out, Bricu realized too late what the death knight had been whispering. He rushed forward, and as he did, the corpse Jakob had tripped over sat up, directly in Bricu’s path. He sprawled, Balthasar’s words echoing in his ears. “Eynes veld ealgor! Veld nem theanga, veld hyrewalden! Veld ealgor!” All around them, the Deathguard heaved to their feet, their limbs jerking and twitching, their jaws distending hideously. Bricu was no Old Tongue scholar, but he’d read enough old poems to catch this one. Kill them both, bondsmen. Kill Bittertongue, kill the songbird. Kill them both. Bricu scrambled backwards, awkward in his armor, as the ghoul at his feet snapped at him and clawed its way upright.
Annalea’s voice rang across the room again, and a chorus of gibbering shrieks joined her. As one, the cluster of ghouls turned and bounded for the bard. The hungry dead bearing down on her like a wave, she spared one quick look for Bricu, and winced when their eyes met. Then the shadow around her unfolded, coming apart into tendrils and ribbons, and the pretty woman in the white dress went with it. The ghouls clawed and bit at inchoate night, tried to sate their hungers on moonbeams, and shrieked at each other as they found nothing. Bricu gained his feet unsteadily, and found Jakob facing him.
The Lord Balthasar stood with his runeblade at guard, calm as pondwater, his eyes open holes. But the Sha riding him loomed and swirled, distended by its own humors, seeping arrogance into the world. The ghouls slunk to his heels and then halted there at a twitch of one hand. “No,” grated Jakob’s hollow voice. “Face me, false knight. For your crimes, I’ll have your head.”
Bricu planted his feet, and spat, and grinned like the fox with the key to the henhouse doors. “Well, then, if that’s it, what’s one more lie on it?” He lifted his hand from the hilt of his sword and traced a blessing in the air, and when he spoke again, his voice had iron behind it. “LEAVE THIS PLACE.” Balthasar strode towards him, and then the heavens fell.
It was just an exorcism, actually, a regular bit of business for any Knight of the Silver Hand. But to the death knight, with his guard down and his body suffused with monstrous energies, it might well have felt like Thorim’s own hammer. His ghouls howled in the cascade of shining light, piling to the floor kicking and clawing at their own burning flesh, and the Sha rippled and writhed about him as he went to his knees. “Would yeh look at that?” Bricu sang out over the screaming dead. “Looks like it does work after all.”
In all the cacophony, it was natural to miss the song at first. But then Annalea, standing collected and composed on the lord’s dais, settled into the melody and gained strength and volume. She sand a lullaby, of a kind any of them might have heard as children, a sweet and drowsy tune. You had to listen closely to catch the sinister edges of it.
Go to sleep, you little babe
Go to sleep, you little babe
Your mama’s gone away, but your daddy’s gonna stay
Didn’t leave nobody but the babe
She plucked a figurine from her sleeve as she sang, a tiny thing beautiful in its simplicity, that might, with some squinting, resemble one of the Jinyu. And the Sha pulsed, and writhed, and then with drowsy reluctance poured itself, drop by drop, out of its host and into the idol. Jakob remained slumped on his knees, twitching occasionally but apparently just as spellbound as his captor. His loosely fixed helm had been knocked off by the concussion of the exorcism, and his slack face writhed beneath the skin.
And just as spellbound was Bricu, until he realized the screaming of the ghouls had begun to abate. He shook his head and set to work among them. They were dazed by pain, and nothing more than particularly gruesome pack hunters to begin with; Bricu hacked them to the ground one by one with little trouble, and all the while Annalea sang the Sha into her hands.
Go to sleep, you little babe
Go to sleep, you little babe
Come and lay your bones on the alabaster stones
And be my forever-loving babe…
As the last ghoul twitched its final tremors, Jakob staggered to his feet. He was snow-pale, blood leaking in rivulets from his nose, and his eyes -- blue as robin’s eggs, speckled here and there with ink -- had a dazed and unfocused look about them. He brought his sword up as Bricu approached, and clumsily blocked an exploratory blow. The next strike drew a counter, but Bricu batted the runeblade aside and hacked into his pauldron. The death knight reeled, and Bricu swung again, patient, workmanlike, and unrelenting. Finally, Jakob attempted a sluggish riposte, and Bricu caught him by the elbow and brought his sword down one-handed. It tore metal and flesh, crunched against bone, and when Bricu released his grip, Sir Jakob Balthasar, Lord of the Manor, Heir to Blade and Hound, fell to his knees with a gasp of pain.
The runeblade skittered across the floor as Annalea’s lullaby trailed to an end. The idol in her hand was malformed and hard to look at, oily black with pulsing purple veins running through it. She eyed it with distaste -- and maybe just a hint of interest -- before dropping it to the floor and bringing her foot down on it. Ivory cracked and powdered, and something at the edge of hearing wailed and hissed as the bard ground her heel into the floor.
Then it was gone.
Annalea descended from the dais to stand before Jakob, and Bricu joined her there. “Hold yer blade,” he told the knight. “When I tell yer son o’yer failures an’ treachery, I can at least tell ‘im that yeh died like a Northman.”
Jakob looked up with dull and incurious eyes. “And what else will you tell him?”
Annalea’s gaze had a hard edge to it, but her tone was soft, “That you were one of us, once. It might not mean so much to you, but someday I think he’ll understand. Even if you don’t.”
“I understand what it meant, Miss Al’Cair.” Jakob wiped blood from his mouth with his good hand and smiled bitterly. “Better than some of your others, maybe. And I...I couldn’t do it, do you understand? I couldn’t be part of --” He shook his head and swallowed. “Yva followed you down that path, and I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t have let Niall do the same. Not my boy.”
“Then we’ll say yeh died wishin’ yeh could’ve been a better da’, an’ a better husband.” Bricu hooked his foot around the runeblade and eased it over to Jakob, his own sword warily raised. “Before this ends, if yeh want t’confess t’anythin else, now is the time.”
“Confess?” Jakob curled his left hand around the hilt of his sword. “No. I fought the Bloody Prince and won. I turned my cloak, and paid the penalty for it. But…” He smiled sadly through the blood and salt. “Tell me something funny, Sir Bittertongue. Let me die laughing.”
The Riders looked at each other, and then Annalea smiled back, a little archly. “I heard this story about this poor silly bastard, who would do anything to continue his old family name. He fucked up every which way he turned, and betrayed everyone he ever loved...but on the day he died, he still had the thing he wanted most.”
Jakob neither bowed his head nor looked away as Bricu’s blade bit into his neck. His body crumpled to the floor, his runeblade clattered and clanged against the stone floor. Jakob’s smiling head tumbled towards the dais and came to rest at its foot.
Bricu cleaned his blade before sheathing it. “It’s done.”
“Death worthy of a song,” Anna said.
“Are yeh gonna write it, then, Annie?” Bricu’s voice was neutral.
“No. It’d be wrong. Yva…” she gestured vaguely, as if to say, you understand, and Bricu nodded. Of course he did. “But worthy of one all the same. Maybe someone else will, someday.” She found the cigarette still, miraculously, tucked behind her ear and produced a match to light it. “Come on. I want to be there to meet Tarq when they cut him loose.”
They left Jakob Balthasar there, in the manor of his ancestors, among the bodies of his last enemies. The fragile light of the Hillsbrad morning reached through the holes in the rafters, and chased his armor with gold. But when a cloud passed before the sun, he was but one more corpse among a multitude; one more in the house of ghosts.