Joined: Wed Jul 31, 2002 5:00 pm
Location: Exeter, UK
[New Fiction] The Lesser
by Laurence J Sinclair
"Lord Gahid du Rellion: at the last, thou didst fail in thy duties, leaving thy charge to die without aid. This shall cost thee not only thine honour, but also thine life."
The chained man did not acknowledge her words, and so Ghed Mnettaor snarled, her wings sweeping out to dominate the dungeon cell. "Didst thou not hear me? Hast thou no words to utter in thy defence, before I gift thee thy due reward?"
The prisoner continued to stare sullenly at the floor.
"At the least, canst thou not reveal the true location of Lothian unto me? Thou may have failed in thy duties as Emperor's Champion, but that is no reason to impede thy successor."
Still her prey refused to answer. Ghed Mnettaor, Voice of the Storm, roared with the full fury of her patron, echoing its thunder as much as her eyes reflected its lightning. She raised her blade high, and brought it down with all her power, shearing the man in half.
As the corpse collapsed, rather than venting blood it simply dissolved, skin revealed to be coating nothing more solid than melting snow, which soon dissipated, leaving only the fractured chains on the floor before the Ghed.
"What trickery is this?" Mnettaor raged, swooping down for a closer view of the reamins. She clawed at the flagstones, desperate for any lingering trace of whatever had worn the form of Gahid.
The door opened and her paladin retainer entered, hand on the hilt of his own sword. "My lady? I heard -"
The Ghed turned in place, clenching the chains tight in one fist. Her anger was discharging static electricity from all over her body, and the growl that she subjected her vassal to still howled with the Storm's winds. "I have been deceived! Be Deverenia infested with these doppelgangers and simulacra?"
"I would hope not," Duke Blackthorne replied.
Mnettaor sat once more upon her throne of office within d'Ilchant Keep, traces of her wrath flickering about and giving the assembled messengers and paladins good cause to remain distant.
"The Eternal Emperor doth request thy presence in Luthlarius, Holy One," the envoy said, still fresh from the saddle.
"Oh, now he deigns to summon me, doth he? When I have problems enough to deal with here. Not only must I quell the dissonance that Modred's death hath stirred within the Storm, but also locate the Lawhammer and pierce the mystery surrounding Sir Gahid's disappearance."
The stormwraith standing to the right of the throne spoke up, his voice a steaming hiss. "There is also the matter of Ghed Parcifal's exile, Voice."
"Thank thee for reminding me, Ghed Vengir," Mnettaor said, "but 'twould be best if thou kept thine own counsel for now. Perhaps thou wouldst like to be tasked with tracking down the renegade, to learn for thyself the truth behind the Hierophant's sentence? 'Twould free me of one concern at the least."
"Holy One, if I may be so bold as to speak in your presence, I would suggest that mayhap all these many problems are but one and the same," a timid voice piped up.
Mnettaor leapt not to her feet, but to the air, wings bearing her aloft. "What mortal dares speak to the Storm's Voice out of turn?"
"Forgive me my rashness, Holy One," the man said, and Mnettaor narrowed her eyes as she identified the speaker. A hunched, balding man, he was dressed not in the armour of a knight but the dishevelled robes of a wizard. The bodyguard at his side may have seemed human, but she could smell the presence of another Stormborn anywhere.
"Speak quickly, lest I tire of tolerating your infraction."
"Thank you, Holy One." The wizard moved forward, paladins parting to make way for the condemned, and the emperor's messenger scuttling indignantly to one side. "I am but a humble student of texts, but in my researches I believe I have found a connection between each event."
"What would this conncetion be, sir..?"
"My name is Jarl, Holy One. And in my readings I believe I have found the only crime for which a stormwraith could have suffered banishment from the Storm. The theft of a sacred artefact such as the Lawhammer would surely count as the grossest heresy in the eyes of one so devout as the late hierophant."
"And of Gahid?"
"Surely no true child of the Storm would perform such a crime of their own will. Someone must have coerced Ghed Parcifal into stealing at their behest, and if their ambitions are so grand as to corrupt a stormwraith and possess Signon's own weapon, 'tis no leap to imagine their conspiracy placing agents such as this simulacrum within our midst."
"I am impressed, Jarl. Hast thou reached any conclusions regarding the transgressors?"
"Alas no, Holy One. I crave mercy for failing thee at this last obstacle."
"There is no need to apologise. Thou hast done well to have discerned so much already. I must meditate over this matter a while. Leave. All of thee."
"But you must answer the emperor's summons!" the messenger blustered, even as his comrades filed out.
"Sir Willems, the Eternal Emperor shall be graced with my presence in due time. An he truly knoweth the Storm, he will display patience, for the threat of heresy doth take precedence over all else."
Alone the Voice sat for over an hour in deliberation. A mortal would have been grateful for an interruption after that time, but the Stormborn once more screeched in rage as the door creaked open.
"Who disturbeth me now? Be forewarned, mine ire is already raised!"
"'Tis but Duke Blackthorne, Holy One," the paladin announced as he entered. "I would converse with thee in private, away from the chattering rabble."
"Dost thou have some light to shed 'pon the mystery?"
"Indeed I do." The black-armoured man, his frame dwarfing the slim stormwraith, approached the throne. "Hath thou considered the possibility that Jarl himself be behind this conspiracy that he purports to have discovered?"
"Careful with thy accusations, Blackthorne. The wizard's word is vouched for by Ghed Carel, and none of my host would desire my deception."
"And yet Ghed Parcifal hath been cast from the Storm. The subversion of thy peers must surely worry thee, Holy One. If a wizard hath truly discovered some way to loose them from their divine connection..."
"Thy words hold some merit. Speak on."
"The Inquisition hath uncovered so many traitors of late, we should no longer be surprised to learn of more. Lord Kestrel's subversive organisation was not wholey unexpected, but none were more surprised than I when Masticus himself was denounced as -"
"What?" Mnettaor lashed out then, a cold hand clawing around Blackthorne's wrist and holding it tight. "Masticus' betrayal was not open knowledge! The Empire would be unduly troubled were it to learn of the Black Sun's champion's fall. Only Inquisitor Chyre and myself were privy to his secrets and execution, all others thinking him slain by Albrecht's blade."
She spat the name of the Aroch's god with such venom that Blackthorne's face charred slightly. Then it was clear of the heat as Mnettaor lifted him from his feet, holding him above her. "Tell me, Duke Blackthorne, how it is that you came to be informed of my private counsels?"
An ugly sneer festered across the duke's damaged face. "I suppose that deception is of no use now. The Medusan Lords know of your efforts against them, and laugh. No matter how many of them you kill, there will always be more. And if you hope to wring information from my lips, then you will be most disappointed."
Ghed Mnettaor took to the air with Blackthorne held before her. Her unliving face registered no triumph, but the voice of the Voice resounded throughout the chamber with a conviction most final. "I need no hope. It shall not be I doing the wringing, heretic; this day the Storm itself shall serve as thy confessor."
The duke's confidence dropped immediately, but his attempts to escape were far too late, the Stormwraith carrying him bodily to his doom.
The Shattered Lands had witnessed many momentous events in its time, but even so, only the ancient passing of the Broken Moon Bascaron over its surface could compare to the spectacle as four verdatha, Stormborn atop them, kicked across the sky in the wake of thunder. The lead rider signalled to land, and each of the dragon-horses in turn spiralled downward, the blasted landscape somehow managing to steam at the touch of their hooves.
Dismounting, Ghed Mnettaor indicated the jagged cave mouth before them. "Within dwells the foe. Be ready."
Her three companions nodded brusquely, their indistinct forms scraping solidity as they prepared for battle. The largest hunched over the weight of an immense hammer, while his spindly comrade clutched tightly to a twisted staff and tome. Bringing up the rear, the final stormwraith held a polearm steady, his skull hidden beneath a horned helm.
Mnettaor drew her own sword and led the way, blazing eyes illuminating the darkness of the cavern easily. Once over the threshold however, the outward appearance of the lair was given the lie, rough stone soon becoming lush carpet beneath her feet. In time, intricate lanterns lined the path, displaying supposedly great works of heathen art. She took great pleasure in cutting down each abominable tapestry and portrait as she passed it.
"Once our work is done, this whole place must be put to the torch," she called back to her entourage.
"That is no way for guests to behave in the home of one so gracious as to allow them entry at such short notice!"
The woman's voice echoed all around, loud even to one who had basked in the Storm's caress, but laced with an amused and seductive lilt. Mnettaor cast her head from side to side, but a rolling laugh was all of their hostess that she discovered.
"Now now, patience my pious little playthings! Just a little further up the corridor and we can become acquainted face to face!"
Scowling, Mnettaor led her troop further into the hillside, her pace faster than before and not slowed by the desire to deface. Soon enough the passage terminated at thick-panelled oak double doors. A single blow from the stormwraith caved them inward, finally revealing the boudoir of the cavern's mistress.
"Cassica Moonseed," Mnettaor growled.
She sat impatiently upon the edge of a divan, rising to her feet as the stormwraiths burst in. The smile upon her flawless face was anything but reassuring, and the imperious way in which she strode forward showed no terror at the presence of so many armed enemies. She herself was not dressed for battle, but little of her pale flesh covered at all, and then with only the thinnest of silks. The room wore more than its occupant, swathed in banners and curtains, with cushions piled on every floor surface. Cassica placed an empty wine glass on a small pedestal table before she spoke.
"You know of me! How flattering! The last group I entertained here did not bother to converse for long before attempting to kill me; I hope that you Deverenians will prove more polite."
Ghed Mnettaor stood silent as her followers filed in behind her to line the doorway, then slowly lowered her sword to point at Cassica. Lightning burst from its tip directly at the woman's chest, only to be absorbed into a veil of shadowy energy inches away from her. She frowned momentarily. "How boring."
A wave of her hand and the hanging silks around the room were shredded as creatures sprang through them from their pens, drooling and howling. Each snapped violently with great, fanged jaws, numerous taloned limbs slashing through the air around them. For all their ferocity however, the eyes that stared out from their variously furred, scaled or feathered faces wept, humanity caged within bestial flesh.
The Stormborn showed no pity, sweeping forwards to meet the onrush of monsters with undying hatred. "Go, Voice!" one of them shouted to Mnettaor, hammer raised high. "We shalt cover thy back!"
"Do thy duty, Ghed Trussen," she replied, leaping over the misshapen beasts that dared stand in her way, landing before their creator and tormentor. "Thy duty, Lady Moonseed, shall be to die."
Cassica was not listening, finishing an incantation under her breath. Mnettaor lunged forwards with her blade, but the Medusan Lord fell upwards, magic holding her aloft. "Shall it now? And whom do I have to thank for bringing you to my door?"
Mnettaor beat her wings to follow her foe into the darkness above the battle. "The traitor Blackthorne died cursing your name. Wilt thou scream for him in return, I wonder?"
"I suppose I should have disposed of it long ago," Cassica sighed as she swirled to a halt, "but I simply could not bear to be rid of something so dashing and handsome. It was so much more agreeable than the original."
Mnettaor now saw how far the ceiling of the chamber reached. It stretched on for a seeming infinity, chains somehow hanging downwards to suspend innumerable iron cages, which Cassica flew between. She darted from one to the next just as the stormwraith caught sight of her, keeping the massive constructs between them. The Voice paused in the chase to peer between the bars of one prison, seeing another victim of Moonseed's touch; a man withered and feeble, sporting mutations gross enough to render him unable to stand or even blink.
"Such corruption of the flesh... Does Lord Gahid languish here also, monster?"
"Pretty little stormwraith... You call me a monster? I care for my pets in a way that your spiteful little empire never could. Where the Storm destroys, Bascaron loves and nourishes."
Mnettaor screeched wordlessly, bringing her sword around two-handed to cut cleanly through the chain that held the cage before her. It plummeted to the ground far below, but there was no time to hear for the crash of its landing as Cassica was revealed behind it almost immediately, fingers clawing to unleash magical energies.
With no time to move aside, Mnettaor took the brunt of the blast full-on. It seared through her body with the first pain she had felt in centuries, and its force was enough to throw her backwards into another cage. The impact jolted the sword from her hand, but she could not open her eyes to watch it fall.
Cassica's breath on her face indicated that she was near, but still Mnettaor was wracked with agony at every movement she attempted. As much as she wanted to reach up and tear the sorceress apart with her bare hands, she could make no move.
"Perhaps I will grant you one boon before you die, you poor, fleshless creature," Moonseed whispered. "It was Gahid that you wanted to see?"
Mnettaor felt herself pulled away by no physical power, and her eyes wrenched open forcibly. Another cage swung before her, its occupant wearing a helm instantly recognisable to any Deverenian, a single, curved horn upon its brow. The man beneath the helm did not bear the noble features of the Gahid that she was familiar with, however. His skin was pale and discoloured, and the eyes that rolled around his sockets were made of blood. He moaned, almost as if he recognised her.
"His last words were for Princess Dashkova. I believe that he truly did love her, just as my foolish husband pined for his dear 'Cassandra'..."
As the wistful words were spoken, Mnettaor felt the bonds holding her weaken. Torment still skittered throughout her, but she limited herself to small movements at first, unwilling to betray her freedom to Cassica.
"I am afraid that my Gahid did not perform according to plan. It was to be my ideal catspaw, allowed to attend that ritual of your emperor, where Blackthorne could not go. Such fun we would have had, if only Malrog's sudden appearance in the Plane of Secrets hadn't distracted me."
Cassica sighed. "Still, you will not be hearing the particulars of his plan. Instead, you're going to help me in my investigations into how a Stormborn may truly die..."
"A Stormborn will only die after all enemies of the Storm lie dead!" Mnettaor shouted, lunging forwards. Cassica gasped, and the stormwraith's fist struck her across the face.
The Medusan Lord withdrew as blood dripped from her scalded jaw. She knew better than to attempt spellcasting this close, and instead cried out wildly. "My pets! Attend your mistress!"
Mnettaor wrenched herself free of Gahid's cage, launching herself toward her enemy only to be met in mid-air and thrown back again. Three humanoid forms clung to her, each as deformed as the monstrous entities fighting the stormwraiths below, but also sporting gnarled wings at their back.
"Prove your love for me my pets, and tear the interloper asunder!"
"Thou didst mention love before," Mnettaor said as she fought to keep champing teeth from her throat. "But such an emotion cannot compare to fear."
The Voice of the Storm wailed. Redolent of the fury of the Dragon itself, the sound sliced across the space among the cages, sending the cages rattling. The denizens within screamed as it hit them, but their own cries were drowned by the Storm's thundrous cacophony. Cassica's attempted spellcasting was ruined, and the Medusan Lord clamped hands to ears even as her minions released Ghed Mnettaor and scattered.
Moonseed could hear nothing of the stormwraith's words as the Voice of the Storm pointed in her direction, mouth forming harsh shapes. For the first time in a long, long while she remembered what terror was, and had a great opportunity to savour it as Ghed Mnettaor rushed upon her, cold hands piercing her skin as they took hold and the Stormborn plummeted downwards with her foe.
The two landed amidst the strewn chaos of the battle, impacting atop the fallen cage. Cassica's fragile body shattered, and even Mnettaor found her body injured as she stood again. She would have to bathe in the Storm's light again soon.
Ghed Trussen alone accompanied her in standing in the chamber, its once-serene decor drenched in mutant bile and blood. "What next, Voice?" he rumbled.
Ghed Mnettaor spared one last glance for Cassica Moonseed's body before retrieving her sword casually and bringing it down to sever the Medusan Lord's head. "Didst thou not hear me the first time? We put this place to the torch."
Ghed Mnettaor, Voice of the Storm, was the only individual not to bow as the Eternal Emperor entered the sky-roofed throne room of the Sedes Imperium. As he swept his cloak about to become seated, a squire rushed forward to place the crown upon his head, fitting perfectly atop his long, black hair.
"We are glad that thou hast finally deigned to accept our invitation to attend us here, o Holy One," he intoned.
"I was about the Storm's business," she replied. "As well as defeating a most dire enemy, I bear news of another that liveth yet."
"We will learn of such matters once thou art absorbed into the Storm," the Emperor said.
"Thou canst not decree such a thing! I am the Voice of the Storm, Its will manifest!"
"What need hath the Storm for a Voice, now that It hath an Eternal Emperor to enact Its will? My sabbatical is at an end, Ghed Mnettaor, as is thy time on the material plane."
The stormwraith made to protest again, but was forced to instead spread her wings in an effort to remain stable as the Storm Itself blotted out the light of the chamber. Where once she had rejoiced in every wash of the Storm's tears, but now she fought against them as hurricane winds and spiralling lightning carried her aloft to be subsumed back into the Storm. At the noise of her final demise, each of the knights gathered about the throne room shuddered.
The Eternal Emperor's gaze lowered from the heavens to consider the armoured warriors. "We will still require a champion, however. Hadst Gahid not allowed the Lawhammer to be stolen away, 'twould be a simple matter to choose one.
"Instead, we must charge thee all with a quest. We shall favour none of thee above any other, each having an equal chance. Find Lothian and return it to Luthlarius, and thou shalt be elevated in our sight."
Each of the six kneeling knights, upon being named by their liege, nodded in acknowledgement before rising and replacing their helms.
"Alain, Aleron, Argen, Bastein, Solus - even thou, cousin Edric - my hopes go with thee all. Fail not the Storm."
When all had marched out, leaving Rhawn alone, enthroned, the Eternal Emperor raised his head to the sky as the rain began to falter, clouds parting above him as the weather brightened. "We know not of this 'Malrog'," he whispered, "but he will find the Plane of Secrets no hiding place from Deverenia."
Laurence J Sinclair