Clan Sable had an eye for spectacular locations, and in acourt jaded by centuries of tinsel and frippery, the talent had a certain dark appeal. At the very least, their choices would spark off a frenzy of one-upmanship as the other faerie clans sought to offer wilder, madder thrills.
Acheron had been a choice of genius. On this plane of existence, the entire universe seemed to be trying to smash itself to pieces. A vast infinity of air suspended countless turning cubes of iron. The sepia-tinted atmosphere sizzled with electricity as lightning arched insane shapes between the cubes, leaving brilliant: violet trails scorched on the eye. The cubes were tiny worlds, and the worlds tumbled like dice. Here and there the cubes collided, the noise ringing through space like titanic bells. Fragments of iron and helpless little bodies went tumbling free into space while far away, wars and violence went ever on. The place stank of lightning strike, of the hammer-and-forge reek of the smashing cubes, and the rusty stench of blood.
The Seelie Court was unconcerned. They were the faerie, the deadly sword point of a secret world. Although Queen Titania and the sylvan powers held state in distant planes, they used the faerie as their hands, their eyes, and their ears. Sinking deeper and deeper into their introverted world, the sylvan powers now scarcely knew fantasy from reality and left the power of the Seelie Court in the hands of the clans.
Faerie control over the sylvan powers was absolute, and with power came intrigue-plots and plans, schemes and dreams. Wrapped in gloriousisolation, the Seelie Court posed and schemed in a frenzy of activity that filled the centuries with the comforting illusion of activity.
Sitting languidly upon outcrops of jagged iron and rust, today’s gathering had eyes only for the conflict being fought at the bottom of acrater just below them. Two combatants, both male faeries, fought and posed in the battlefield. Small, lithe, and winged like dragonflies, the creatures battled viciously with sword and magic. The duelists were slim and elegant, with clothing gleaned from a dozen exotic planes. Holding absurdly thin little swords, they stood and flung spell after spell at one another in a display full of flash and glory but rather empty of blood. Spellfire lit and stained imperfections in the metal of the crater, making it glow brilliant green, lavender, and orange. Here and there a faerie gave an appreciative patter of applause, while mortal servants poured out tinctures of faerie wine.
Today’s duel served as a welcome little diversion. Ushan,Lord of Clan Sable, sat beneath a fan waved by one of his servants. It amused him these days to be attended by female orcs, their bestial forms draped in courtly finery. A man much in love with his own image, Ushan raised his glass to another faerie, who wandered over, keeping his eyes upon the fight.
Ushan’s comrade drew himself up on a stool that had beencovered with a leucrotta skin. He accepted wine from a serving girl and said, “My Lord Ushan.”
“My Lord Faen.” Silver haired, Ushan had today dressed inrobes of animated flame. “I trust Acheron suits you well?”
“Well enough, well enough.” Lord Faen affected spectacles anda pointed beard, considering himself to be the greatest scholar of the Seelie Court. He gave a quiet flutter of his wings. “Can you recall the reason for thisduel?”
“The usual-insults, women…” Lord Ushan seemed moreinterested in watching the slow tumble of a distant iron cube than following the duel. “Who remembers?”
“The participants, perhaps?” Carefully watching the nearestduelist, Faen slowly stroked at his antennae. “Your man Tarquil has quite atouch. Do you have hopes for him?”
Watching the boy, Ushan appreciatively sipped from his glass. “His technique has improved. I believe him to be the best duelist in the lowercourt.”
“He is your sisters son?” Lord Faen steepled his fingers,carefully watching the two faeries below as they stabbed spell and counter spell at one another. “He likes killing too much.”
“Not a bad thing in a noble. We see too many milksops in thecurrent generation, too little thirst for blood.”
Ushan relaxed. All about him spread the Seelie Court, the nobility of faerie. Small, winged figures-some remaining elegantly in form andothers changing shape as they pleased-lay scattered languidly about. Theinhabitants of Acheron had wisely fled. Few creatures ever mistook a faerie for one of the lesser forest folk and escaped to tell the tale.
In the crater, spell followed spell. The two battling faeries flew and circled-invisible one moment, then outlined by detection spells in thenext. Etiquette demanded non-lethal spells, yet Ushan’s nephew stabbed thesespells home with vicious intensity. He slammed his opponent back against the ground, sending the faerie skidding along hot rusted metal.
Lord Faen narrowed his eyes as he watched the combatants. “Splendid isolation is an illusion. We have wasted our intellects on selfaggrandizement.”
“A superior being is allowed aggrandizement.” Ushan shot adark glance toward Lord Faen. “Our intelligence makes us strong.”
“The mark of intelligence is the ability to adapt to unseenchanges.”
“The mark of intelligence is to prevent the occurrence of anyunseen changes.” Ushan’s lavender eyes sparked. “Events are merely sculptures ofaction made in the medium of time. We can control and shape events to meet our own needs. We are not mere butterflies to be blown along in the winds of any random storm.”
Matching cold anger with disdain, Lord Faen smoothed his beard. “We have already produced one dark goddess from our ranks. She toobelieved that events could be controlled.”
“All it won her was an eternal prison.” Ushan made a sharpmotion with his hand. The Faerie Queen of Wind and Woe was not a topic for open discussion. “Clan Nightshade saw to it, and good riddance to her… andthem.”
A heavy sigh escaped Lord Faen as he sat back in his seat. He took more wine and swirled the amber liquid slowly in its glass as he said, “Wemust speak of Clan Nightshade.”
Ushan slowly turned a frosty gaze upon the other faerie. “They played for power, and they lost. The lesson has kept the lesser houses inline.” Once the greatest of faerie houses, Clan Nightshade had been exiled forcenturies. “Clan Nightshade is no more.”
Faen speared Ushan with an acidic, mocking gaze. “ClanNightshade is alive. Your Clan Sable is aware of it. We are all aware of it. Only a fool would remain ignorant of a potential ally-or a potential enemy.”
“They are no longer of the Court.” Lean and elegant, LordUshan held out his glass to his towering serving girls. “They have adapted toother worlds. Why should we care for what Nightshade does?”
“Clan Nightshade now has a great deal of experience in theouter worlds-in the material plane, in particular. Experience and knowledge areweapons, Ushan. Without weapons, the universe may overtake us, intelligence or no.” Lord Faen set his glass aside. “Clan Nightshade clipped the wings of theQueen of Wind and Woe. It is a skill we may soon need again.”
“Faen! We have no need to go chasing demons in the outsideworld!”
Faen tapped his index fingers carefully together and replied, “Yes. We are all too skilled at breeding them from within.” The faerie tuggedstraight his long goatee. “If we do not curb the habit, it will be the death ofus.”
In the crater below, Ushan’s nephew scored a hit, smashinghis opponent from his feet. Ignoring the duel, Faen rose to leave. Ushan immediately shot to his feet, his wings spread in fury.
“Clan Nightshade are outsiders! They are not of the body!”
“Then we need ties.” Faen turned away. “A means of welcomingthem truly back into the family of faerie.”
“It cannot be done!”
“It must be done. The council meets before the QueenTitania tomorrow. I shall propose exactly this: that Nightshade be brought back from its exile in the wilds.”
Ushan flexed his fists only to feel Faen’s voice derisivelycaressing his rage.
“Truly, Ushan, turn your intelligence to the task. A new ageis being born! Faerie must survive it.” Lord Faen rose into the air. “We needtools, Ushan. We need weapons.”
The faerie scholar faded into invisibility and then departed. Left alone with his serving girls, Lord Ushan sat in stony silence. In the crater below, Tarquil wiped his blade above his kill and looked up to meet his uncle’s eyes. His thin mouth twisted into a smile.
Autumn had stripped the maple trees of their green leaves,carpeting the forest in a deep, damp carpet of flame red and russet brown. The smell of damp and mold was everywhere, strangely fresh and enervating.
A man dressed in armor made of black dragon scales plodded silently along the road that meandered through the trees. A shimmering black hell hound pelt hung down his back, the canine’s head sitting atop the man’shelmet and grinning madly with bright white fangs. The man’s hand rested upon ahuge sword that jutted through his belt. Heavy hiking boots, a backpack, a coil of rope… it was the equipment of a man who marched fast and slept rough.Shaven headed, powerful, and suspicious, the Justicar marched his tireless march, his eyes watching the forest for the slightest stir of life.
Hovering gaily in mid air beside him, wearing an outfit to make a mother scream and a father reach for weapons, Escalla the faerie whistled a tune. Two feet tall, her long blonde hair shining straight and free, the faerie travelled without a worry in the world.
Along the road behind them rumbled a mule cart driven by a little man with an axe-beak nose. On the cart hung a banner reading: TRANSPORTS TO ADVENCHER. Polk the teamster drew in deep breaths of satisfaction as he looked about, as if the forest were a personal construction project in which he took huge pride. Beside the cart padded Enid the sphinx-brown haired, smotheredin freckles, and enjoying the dappled forest sun immensely.
They followed an old overgrown road lined occasionally with the heads of sunken statues, the granite faces of ancient kings frowning down at the travelers. Sparing the statues a brief glare of annoyance, the Justicar adjusted the fit of his hell hound and gave a seething growl.
Their road map had finally been found. Polk had been using it as a wrapper for a greasy pile of ham sandwiches. As it turned out, their destination, Hommlet, was not in Keoland as Polk had claimed. Instead it lay three hundred miles to the northeast. Jus was lost, bruised, battered, and had almost been eaten by a hydra a few miles back. This was not one of his better days. Nursing righteous indignation, Jus shot a dire glance back at Polk where he rode upon the wagon.
Happy as a clam, Escalla simply shrugged and said, “Get offhis case! So he got the map upside down. It’s the Flanaess! With these kind ofplace names, anyone can make mistakes.” Escalla happily fluttered her wings.“We’ll just go north for a few hundred miles and bam! We’ll be inHommlet.”
Unperturbed by the detour, Escalla, Polk, and Enid simply seemed to look forward to the journey and enjoyed the views. More concerned with safety, food, shelter, and keeping his companions alive, the Justicar looked about the forest and seethed.
“Keoland. I’ve never been to Keoland before.”
“Well, these autumn leaves are neat.” Flying backward,Escalla plucked at a huge red maple leaf. “Feels kind of homey, like I’ve beenhere before.”
The fact that they were totally lost had made no impression on her. Jus looked at her with one raised brow and asked, “Have you beenhere before?”
“Ah, I dunno. Trees… yeah. Leaves… yeah. One patch offorest is really pretty amazingly like another.” Escalla turned around in midairas she flew. “But this”-she gestured at the slowly crumbling remains of a longfallen statue-“this could be familiar! I know I’ve seen statues like thissomewhere before. I mean kinda similar…” She darted forward down the road.“Hey! I know! Let’s follow the road! It must lead to a town!”
“Escalla, we are following the road.”
The road turned a bend, and a row of thatched roofs suddenly met the travelers’ eyes. It was a village long deserted and left to the weeds.In a wilderness of deserted buildings, only the squirrels reigned. Cottage doors hung open, some creaking slowly like the sagging bones of the dead. Other houses simply lay cold and empty with thistles sprouting from the thatch roofs. The squirrels sped and flitted from roof to roof, wall to wall, perching atop rusted wagons and twittering atop abandoned ploughs. They even perched on the faded sign of an old tavern, making the painted boards sway slowly in the wind.
War had come and gone. The village lay abandoned, the inhabitants having been wise enough to retreat before powers they could not resist. The buildings were still intact but were now home to only an occasional nest of stirges.
As Enid padded her way down the weed-ridden street, Polk the teamster reined the cart to a halt. The sudden silence was deafening.
Grim and tired, the Justicar plodded over to the tavern and prodded the door open with his black sword. The gloomy taproom was deserted, all except for a family of voles.
The hell hound searched with senses far sharper than any mortal’s. Stirges, tree hoppers, moss, mold, mouses with tailses, rainpuddles, little spiders.
No monsters, no magic.
Jus knelt to carefully examine the street. The hard-packed earth was carpeted with weeds, none of which seemed bent or broken by the passing of feet. “And no tracks.”
“Hey! Look at this! It’s a dead elephant!” Escalla hoveredover a broken cottage. “Wow! Ivory! We could find a fortune in ivory!”
Jus walked over to the girl and looked at a row of crushed and shattered houses. Lying sprawled amongst the fallen walls was a huge skeleton easily three times the size of a man. The skeleton’s feet were wrappedin moldering boots. A tree limb had served it for a club. It lay long dead, furred with moss, and with dandelions growing from the sockets of its eyes.
Escalla darted above the houses and rubbed her hands in glee. “There’s another elephant over here! And another!”
“They’re not elephants, Escalla. They’re giants.”
“How do you know?”
“A remarkable lack of elephant-like properties.” Jus levereda flaking piece of bone from the top of a giant’s shin and passed it up toCinders. “I judge them about sixteen feet tall. They must have driven off thevillagers.”
Sitting on a rooftop, Escalla went into a sulk. “Well, theycould have been elephants.”
“Escalla, there are no elephants in the Flanaess.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a ranger. Trust me.”
Whatever had happened to the village, it had happened many years before. The place was clean, no dangers, no enemies. With a heavy sigh, the Justicar unfastened the paws of the hell hound pelt from his neck and drew Cinders from his shoulders to shake the dust out of his friend’s fur. The bigman walked back and sat down on a mounting block outside the tavern, unfastened his helmet and let it crash down into the grass, then began to carefully brush the hell hound’s fur.