I left you last time in the midst of battle.
“Which one of you kilt my daddy?” Young Villamor, Jr. snorted. Trask looked up weakly, then read something in his eyes. “Nooooooooooo!” he cried as Koth's greataxe cleft him in twain.
“By the twelve raging gods!” I yelled, flinging myself upon Koth. I wish I could say I beat him, but like his daddy, he soon held the upper hand over me. The only thing that saved me was that, also like his daddy, he paused to gloat over his helpless victim. This gave Cane time to come up from behind and garrote him.
“Tough about Trask,” he said while wiping his hands on a fallen banner.
I could see Irovetti standing on his throne, gesticulating wildly with his weapon, now seemingly empty, as Lev and Vlad slowly advanced towards him. Suddenly, the air shimmered around the throne and he was gone.
“Dag!” said Lev. “We almost had him.”
Irovetti being gone didn't seem to bother our foes, but losing Koth, Jr. took the wind out of the ogre mage. He threw up his hands, “Enough already. I submit.” Soon the others fell silent, dropping their arms. They looked surprised.
“What's your name?” Lev asked him.
“Well, now you're my Avinash Jurrg.”
The ogre mage bowed to him, followed by the others. “Get the sergeant in charge of new recruits and then you can visit the quartermaster. What next?” He looked at the rest of us.
“Trask,” I replied plainly. We stopped by where the archer had fallen and were deeply shocked to see that what we thought was Trask's mangled body instead looked like a large doll, severed in half, with beady gem eyes.
“Wha?” Lev cried. “Who—or what—made this? How did they make it so lifelike? It must have heard . . . everything about us, all our plans.”
There was no time to consider what that implied, we still had to find Irovetti. Since he'd stepped through a dimension door there was no reason to think he was nearby, but still we searched the building—do you know how many rooms a palace with a thousand doors has?
Sometime later I went back to the kitchen to slake my thirst when I noticed the house staff preparing an ornate feast. “What is this?” I asked, thinking it was for us. “Oh, nothing,” the butler sniffed. “Routine.”
I watched them for a moment, thinking. “Then you won't mind if I follow?”
The man shared a look with the cook. “Of course not,” he said, nodding to the boys pushing the cart. “What you do is your business. Mine is to serve my master.”
I called the others and we followed them through a grand atrium where a fountain tinkled merrily beneath a large gold statue of Irovetti. The vanity of the man was ridiculous. We then meandered through any number of dark hallways and small rooms until we came to a blank wall where the serving man traced a few symbols and a secret door slid aside. “Please follow me,” he said as his boys gathered enough food and wine for ten large men and clambered down a long, dark stairway leading deep into the rock beneath.
Once we reached the bottom we waited in the dark by the stairs while he served the feast.
“You trust him?” Cane asked incredulously.
Lev shrugged, “Sure, why not?”
“Besides, we've got his old lady,” Vlad whispered after Lev had turned away. Still, his instinct was right, and soon the meal had been delivered and the servants gone.
“We'll let him stuff himself for awhile,” Lev smiled, settling back.
We heard talking, one was Irovetti's nasal whine and the other was a softer voice. “Castruccio, darlink, which of these do you think I should wear?”
You always ask me the hardest questions. You look divine in the peach but the the black has more pockets for your weaponry.”
“Showtime,” Lev whispered, opening the door.
“Ah,” said Irovetti, seemingly unsurprised, ripping off the wing of the roast bird in front of him and shoving it into his mouth. A beautiful fey sat across from him, “Engelidis, this is Cane the butcher, Marquand the genocide, Vlad the impaler, and Lev the working class hero. Which do you suppose is most dangerous, my dear?” He looked us over judiciously. “Ah, comrade Lev, they'll die by the millions before you're through.”
Lev snorted, “That's rich coming from you. You kill for sport!”
“What do you want?” Lev asked, losing patience.
“Not that much. I've been preparing for this day for a long time, I knew someone—or something—would catch up with me eventually.” He shoved a rich slab of bread into his mouth. “I've got a nice little stash of gold waiting for me in the great city of Korvosa and no reason to return to this backwater. All you have to do is let us walk away and you can add Pitax to your little empire—lock, stock, and teardrop.”
“Why would we do that?” Cane stepped forward, a dangerous low rumble in his throat, like right before he'd killed Grigori. Lev reached out to restrain him. “Let him speak.”
“I have information you need to know,” Irovetti shrugged dismissively, “like Restov's plans for you.”
“They plan an alliance with us.”
Irovetti laughed, picking a chicken bone clean before tossing it into the corner of the room. “And you expect New Stetven to sit by and wait for the P.U.R.K. to ally with Rostland against them?” he snickered. “Who do you think asked me to attack Tatzleford?”
Lev seethed. “What else do you have to save yourself, Irovetti? You're a war criminal.”
“I've got some very special gear. . . .”
“I was planning on taking that off you anyway,” Cane smirked.
“Things I keep in very secret places,” he added smugly. Again Cane paused.
“Anything else?” Lev sounded resigned.
Irovetti gave Engelidis's hand a squeeze. “There's an issue with the first world you should probably know about.”
I could hold my bile no longer. “What about the Justice I promised those poor souls in Tatzleford that your men butchered?” I cried.
His face hardened. “The man responsible for that has already paid your price.”
“Don't take my word for it, look it up in the records, ask anybody in the city. He was proud of what he'd done. He's supposed to have pleasured himself amongst the corpses.”
Lev replied coolly, “If what you say is true, and you turn your treasures over to us, you can leave this region never to return.”
“Aw,” Cane mumbled.
“Don't take it so hard, Butcher,” Irovetti laughed. Now, why don't you all pull up some chairs, pour some wine, and we'll get down to business.”
“You were going to tell us about the political situation up north?”
“Dear,” he said turning to Engelidis, who was busy pouring our drinks, “while we're talking will you get the sword for the gentlemen?”
“I could use some help.”
“I'll go!” Cane suddenly volunteered, sizing her up as he stood. Engelidis towered over him, sharp-featured with mottled green skin—natural camouflage—and taut muscles that seemed almost too perfect. He followed her through the curtain that served as one long wall.
Irovetti took a long drink of wine before continuing. “Basically, why do you think you were sent to the Stolen Lands, why were any of us sent?”
“To secure the southern border and provide trade with Brevoy without getting New Stetven's nose out of joint.”
“Good so far, what then?”
“We form mutually beneficial alliances with Brevoy and everyone profits.”
Irovetti laughed, shaking his head. “I'd imagine your pal Marquand has a better idea of what's going on.”
All eyes turned to me. I shrugged. “The Swordlords probably thought that if our four groups were successful at taming the Stolen Lands, then they would be able to play us off one another until we fell—one by one.”
“Then they would pick up the pieces, using our resources and soldiers against New Stetven and settle old scores.”
“But. . . .”
“But nothing, Comrade Lev,” Irovetti smirked. “Little did they expect you to unite the region under one banner, much less the way you united it: by appealing to the common people, by ending the distinctions between race and class, by making everyone and everything equal! My gods, both Restov and New Stetven hate and fear you. If this—creed—of yours ever catches on, all their world is at risk.”
That's when Cane and Engelidis returned, dripping wet and laughing, both of them nearly naked. As you know, all nymphs are beautiful, but Engelidis especially so. She was leaving very little for our imaginations.
There was the crash of breaking glass as Irovetti pulled the tablecloth away, scattering dishes, glasses, silverware, and food everywhere. He handed it to Engelidis, growling, “Cover yourself!”
Cane looked up, startled. “Hey,” he protested. “Nothing happened. We just had to swim underwater to retrieve this baby.” His face broke out is a grin as he unwrapped the beautiful, etheral shawl the treasure was wrapped in.
“By Erastil!” I croaked. The bastard sword he unveiled was like nothing I'd seen before. The blade looked as if it had been grown, not forged, and the gemstones embedded in the handle's inlay were of deeper, otherworldly, hues than I've experienced before. It seemed to fit my hand naturally. I tried several cuts in the air.
“Hey, I think we have a winner,” Cane laughed before remembering Irovetti, who sat glowering at him from across the table. Restraining himself, the deposed ruler turned to me. “That blade is very special, you see. It is probably the most important artifact in the River Kingdoms,” he coughed. “There are places where our world meets with other worlds and the realm of Thousandbreaths—her realm—is one of them.
“Nyrissa, that's her name, is a nymph from the old school—before time, before our world existed.” He glared again at Engelidis, who had returned wearing a simple maroon shift, damp hair casually done up, showing the back of her long, thin neck. “Her grip on our world is growing,” Irovetti rumbled on. “This sword you hold, called Briar, an intelligent vorpal blade, is the only means there is of defeating her plans.”
I noticed Cane sneaking shy glances at Engelidis, who ignored him while studying Irovetti in her turn. “Could it be?” I thought. Our Cane has never loved anything but animals before this, although the fey are wild enough to satisfy anyone, I suppose.
“You'll need to stay down here until we can arrange your safe transportation.”
“You're a gentleman, Comrade Lev,” Irovetti sniped, tapping his razor-spitting rod significantly.
We started back upstairs but had barely shut the door when we heard Irovetti break out in abject cursing. Engelidis was silent. Cane turned back but stopped. “No,” Lev warned.
“I can't leave you alone with any man,” Irovetti complained.
“It's all in your mind, Castruccio,” she replied coldly.
“Was your little fling with Koth in my mind?”
“And Koth, Jr.?”
“That was an accident.”
“An accident?” he shrieked.
“He was so sad when his daddy died, how could I not comfort him?”
“Comfort? That's what you call it now? Comforting? I have another word for it!”
“. . . Besides, he wasn't taking no for an answer,” she went on, as if chatting at the fair. “Just like his daddy—ow! Who do you think you're . . .” There was a grunt, the sound of crunching bone, a terrible scream. Cane ripped the door open and what we saw froze the marrow in my bones forever. Irovetti was held in the coiled embrace of a spirit naga twisting off his head.
“I think it's time to go,” Cane whispered, shutting the door. We could hear her slithering after us but, fortunately, the door seemed to be designed for just such an occurrence and we soon had it securely barred. Lev and Vlad hurriedly warded the area as we climbed back upstairs with Engelidis's thumps, shrieks, and curses in our ears.
“She's cute,” said Cane, “but what a temper!”
“Better put some guards in here,” Lev said distractedly when we'd returned to the top. “In case she gets out.”
But she never did, not that way. When we finally got the nerve to enter the underground room again we found Irovetti's moldering corpse, his Rod of Razors and Mindrender Baton, and not much else. The spirit naga that is Engelidis's true form apparently escaped through a long conduit leading down to the river.
We managed to get Pitax prepared to join the P.U.R.K. in about three weeks. Bert Askew showed up one day, in the same caravan that brought Queen Ilse, to inventory the wealth of Pitax. “You gotta pay for this some way,” he scolded. “You think armies run on promises and regrets? It would'a helped the balance sheet if more of your guys had died. What were you thinking?”
“I don't know, Bert,” I replied, seeing Lev and Ilse together in the distance holding hands, chatting with some local burghers about the width of the street.
“It's a shame about Queen Ilse.”
It took a moment to register what he was saying. “What?”
“Oh yes, she's been seeing men day and night, everybody knows it, even while carrying the Comrade's child—if it is his,” he added with a tsk.
“Yeah, they say she was favoring Vlad and Trask around that time.” He looked at me blandly. “Of course, you were always above suspicion.”
I admit, dear Pino, that I wanted to kill him on the spot, but something stopped me—the certain knowledge that Askew could not be the brains behind this conspiracy. I needed to know more.
We dispersed most of the army with as little looting as possible thanks to Comrade Lev's “share the wealth” program. It was mostly Pitax's wealth, but the locals were persuaded once they saw the fortune that would be flowing their way when we opened the borders and free trade commenced. Many of our army veterans he recruited, sending them to the border with Brevoy, just in case.
As soon as we could, we left for Whiterose Abbey, to take the shawl back to the nereid Evindra, parting with Ilse, who was going to Tuskland to finish her term.
Our return to Whiterose was without event, except for the troubling things I'd learned, Trask's mysterious death not the least of them. And what to make of Askew's reckless gossip? Dear Pino, it seems the more problems we solve, the more come our way.
Below the hill, the Abbey grounds had changed little from our previous visit, but the Abbey itself had been cleaned up, even though most of it was still in disrepair. Evindra greeted us near the entrance to her cistern. “We can put you in the Abbot's old quarters, the roof don't leak and it'll keep out the coyotes. Oh, and the Abbey's spirits have been laid to rest, so don't you be worrying about that! I even got most of the bloodstains out!”
Cane and ZzzzzAaaah soon left to make their own place in the wild. “I'll be back in two or three days,” he mumbled as they disappeared into the tall grass.
That evening we presented a delighted Evindra with her shawl. “I saw that ye were carrying Briar,” she said. “I hope you know what you're getting into.”
“Not really,” I replied, “I know that I feel a certain kinship for it.”
“Kinship it is, 'cause Briar was forged of a woman's love and won't be at rest until it lies nestled once more in her bosom.”
As darkness fell, we sat around a campfire and listened to her tale from a long time ago and another place, the one we call the First World. Now the First World is an unfinished place—unfinishable—in constant metamorphosis, dominated by the Eldest, who are spiteful and jealous beings, as close to unknowable as there is.
Nyrissa was just another nymph in that insecure place until she dared love an Eldest. His fecund seed transposed her, gave her power to rival the Eldest themselves and doomed him. Within this chaos she created an island of stability that she called Thousandbreaths, and gave it anchorage in our world, “very near this place.”
Unsurprisingly, the Eldest found Nyrissa presumptuous, sending a powerful dragon, the Jabberwock, to take her down a notch. Then, to control her—and punish her—they took her power of love away, fixing it within the sword Driar. “Yes, the very one you carry, this sword is far more than a weapon. It's an intelligent being and the closer you get it to Nyrissa, the more it'll wake. Yeah.”
The Eldest cast it into our world to keep it away from her, but they didn't consider that her need could last such a very long time, longer than their will to punish. All she wants now is love. “She received the visions and prophecies that would come to haunt her so—that Briar would be returned to her, but only as an instrument of her own death, wielded in the hands of a mortal hero.”*
Once she'd tracked it into our world she set up shop along the southern base of the Branthlend Mountains, in the area knows as the Forest of a Thousand Voices.
“And why should we care?” asked Lev, studying the fire.
“Because she knows you have her sword, you fool! She felt it as soon as you lifted it from the water and unwrapped my shawl. While she may be something of an outcast in her own land, here she has the power to lay waste to everything you've accomplished. You must stop her first.”
Lev sighed tiredly. “We must protect the kingdom.”
Later, before sleeping, we studied the books left in the monastery's library, which was near the rooms where we were staying. “Ah, here it is,” Said Vlad, holding up a copy of Zuddiger’s Picnic. Calling Lev, we read it carefully. It's basically a description of Thousandbreaths as a fable but, if the stories are interpreted correctly, they offer some idea as to the creatures we may encounter there. Also, there's a map, as fanciful as it may be.
Once we'd finished breakfast the next morning, Lev said, “I guess we might as well get going.”
Stopping at Evindra's cistern to say goodbye, we were surprised to find her mounted on a sturdy mule and ready to ride. “You're gonna need my help,” she explained beneath her big floppy sun hat, adding demurely, “Can't let my skin dry out.”
“What about Cane?” I asked Lev.
“He'll find us,” Lev assured me.
And sure enough, about ten miles out, he did,
*From Kingmaker: Sound of a Thousand Screams, p.7