Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lorshal and Balaasq, Vignette One

Fog shrouded everything, only the distant tolling of the execution-bells competed with the sea gulls in the hour right before dawn. Two heavily-cloaked figures nonchalantly made their way through the fog followed discretely by a rented armature-stevedore carrying a number of bags and a sea-traveler's trunk. Somewhere down an alley a dog was barking in a perfunctory, almost bored fashion. They were headed towards the waterfront. Perhaps they intended to take passage on a steam barge or some majestic frigate, possibly they were on their way to seal a clandestine deal with unscrupulous and only vaguely human merchants from some exotic far away port. Whatever their mission, they were casual, yet deliberate in their steps, measured in their pace and heavily veiled in a number of foiling spells that glittered and glimmered just at the very threshold of visibility because of all the diffuse moisture in the early morning sea air. They were overt and in the open, yet discrete and cautious; a sure sign that this was not a normal pair of potential 'contributors' to the local cut-purses who quickly passed along the signal to let these two pass unmolested. It was still early after all, and who knows what trouble might ensue by accosting such persons of such obvious means? There'd be easier pickings soon enough. There always was.

Salt gave the cool air an unmistakable tang as the pair turned down one boulevard and then another, taking the bridge across the narrow but unmistakable misericorde canal, and cutting across Green Street almost directly in front of fat old Balzoor's main residence in Devukarsha, the one known only to a few close business associates and otherwise as unremarkable as the best spells money could buy had made it. It was almost as if the couple were deliberately flaunting their mysteriousness right under Balzoor's nose, but he was absent that morning, comfortably drunk and luxuriously ensconced in a massive hand-carved ebony bed with a pair of his favorite Daishuula mistresses and completely oblivious to the subtle affront to his legendary curiosity. The strangers turned down a particular causeway, carefully made their way down the gravel-spattered ramp to the left and continued down to the water, the docks and the ships moored there.

Fishmongers slumbered as fisherfolk of a hundred races and ethnicities clomped past the strangers dragging nets and other things to their rough boats before the Great Clock rang out the very moment of dawn's breaking. The fog swirled and grew turbulent with the passage of so many bodies in the last lingering moments of the night. No one crossed their path. A solitary whore returning from some already forgotten sailor's bunk called out to them by reflex before she knew what she had done. The pair stopped. The larger one stepped towards the whore and raised its richly embroidered hood back ever so slightly to reveal a visage somewhere between a leering satyr and some ichthyphallic saint of the shoal-tribes she was originally raised amongst. Her breath caught in her throat, blocking her scream. The nightmare figure tossed her a single iridium drukma—more than she could hope to earn in a year as a wharfside doxie. In her fright, she almost missed the coin with her shaking fingers, but her ample cleavage caught it perfectly. Her hand convulsively clutching her breast, the whore bowed and retreated back into the nearest alley, hoping against hope that the fog would cover her and hide her from the local thieves.

The taller one chuckled softly then clapped his fellow traveler on the shoulder as if in a shared jest and they continued on their way. The soft, rhythmic bells of the harbor buoys now competed with the execution bells, creating the plaintive music that had so inspired Dubarre so many centuries ago. But times change and fashions come and go, and few remembered the melancholy songs of the reformed ascetic who tragically drowned himself for lack of an audience who could appreciate his artistry during his lifetime. They walked right past the small memorial to Dubarre, a verdigris-stained bronze plaque brutishly bolted into one of the lamp-stanchions along the wharf, presumably near the spot where he had jumped into the harbor oh so long ago. The strangers did not lay flowers on the spot, nor mark it in any way at all as they passed by, an act which mildly offended and annoyed the faded and degraded ghost of the musician who could only watch from his place of binding.

Heedless of the dire imprecations of the nymph-bound suicide-spirit, the strangers walked on down the wharf, down another ramp, across a rude lane of frequently repaired bamboo and driftwood hung between the wharf and a floating dock at which was tethered only one ship. It was to this one ship that the pair had been headed all along.

Stately, majestic, impossibly clean and immaculate in its very geometries in a manner completely beyond the capabilities of the finest craftsmen or automaton, the timeship rested completely at peace and inviolate like a dream made manifest. The fog seemed reluctant to obscure the radiant beauty of the timeship's extraordinary lines. The area directly at the foot of the gangplank leading up into the timeship was clear, well-lit and a sullen-seeming, brooding figure stood there waiting for them. It was armed with a wickedly jagged scimitar and some sort of firearm hung from its heavily studded belt.

“Good morning Balaasq,” came the tall one's honeyed voice, a note of particular sarcasm quite evident in it. As if to emphasize his mockery, the Great Clock's massive bell reverberated once, marking the moment of dawn for all concerned.

“I've come to stop you Lorshal. This is wrong what you are doing.” The heavy-set figure in armor made up of intricately etched and cleverly fitted square-plates of some ambiguously gray-green metal shifted his grip on the scimitar. He radiated determination and a profound sense of purpose.

“Really? Do you honestly think so?” Lorshal quipped flippantly, totally unimpressed by the militant stance of the rhinocerous-descended fencing master from Galoom.

“It is an abomination. It must be stopped.” Balaasq snorted heavily to emphasize his very simple, very immutable convictions.

“Truly? You spew the sheerest ignorant twaddle.” Lorshal made a dismissive gesture and stifled a laugh at the blade-adept who was challenging him so early in the morning.

“It is against the natural order of things...” spluttered Balaasq in rapidly escalating fury. His fingers were growing lighter gray with a pinkish under-hue where he gripped his scimitar far more tightly than was recommended or wise. The infamous wizard was getting to him. Deliberately provoking him. But he was already too far into Lorshal's pre-arranged snare of spells.

“I defy the natural order.” Lorshal laughed wildly, throwing back his hood to reveal his goatish-features and the pair of majestic horns sweeping seamlessly back from his brow as his fingers raced through a variety of rapid mudra-like spell gestures, deftly reinforcing the defenses he had veiled over himself prior to leaving his heavily-fortified estates.

The sword-adept stomped right at Lorshal, grunting and bellowing in rage, swinging his fearsomely symmetrical scimitar in a lethal arc right at his mid-riff. The mad wizard deflected the blade with a flick of his left hand as though swatting away a fly. Balaasq's rage intensified, he gathered himself up and charged again, his great feet stamping mightily upon the timbers of the floating dock, thick veins throbbing in his massive neck. He charged in again and again, this time sweeping upwards, that time lunging in a way that would have disemboweled another opponent, slashing and hacking and cutting and thrusting until at last the massive sword-adept faltered, his face drenched in sweat.

Sensing an excellent opportunity, Lorshal drew himself up haughtily, with supreme self-satisfaction and smugness, and called out to Balaasq; “Enough. I win.”

“What?” Spluttered the incredulous and panting rhinotaur. His prodigious, if ultimately futile, exertions had exhausted him and it was becoming more and more difficult to ignore it, or to hide it from his opponent.

“It is over, oh worthy maestro of the keen edge.” Lorshal gravely bowed his head and made the sign for peace which he performed in a most insouciant and insulting manner, something Balaasq had never known was possible before.

Balaasq paused, panting and considering the wizard's meaning, his rage abating. Doubt swirled and struck deeply into his spell-befuddled mind.

He looked around at the lightly rolling floating dock before the timeship's gangplank. They were alone, just Lorshal and himself.

There was no sign of the other robed figure, nor of the public-rental armature that had been carrying their luggage.

A moment passed. Another flew away like a flock of starlings in the receding fog.

The extent of his failure settled upon Balaasq like a tide of molten lead that crushed him down into the blackest pits of despair, a feeling that Lorshal's subtle, wicked spells only intensified.

Balaasq heaved a tremendous sigh and replaced his scimitar into the clip on his burly back with a tremendous effort of will. He still had what was left of his reputation, his honor, his tattered dignity to think about. It was over. He had lost. The wizard had outclassed him, out thought him, neutralized his strength with the simplest of spells and a plainly superior strategy. It stung to have lost, but it was an honest defeat, not one brought on by poison or other coward's tricks. If one challenged a painter, it would only follow that they should choose to answer with their own best technique. Challenging a wizard without adequate consideration for their spells was sheerest folly. With a shudder that shamed him deeply without the help of Lorshal's pernicious spells, Balaasq realized that he was incredibly fortunate to still be alive.

Balaasq looked into the wizard's lambent green-amber eyes and for a briefest of instants some sort of mutual acknowledgement flitted between them that forever altered each other's opinion of one another. A grudging respect for one another took root like a tiny poppy seed that would grow in time. What bitter and bloody fruit it would bear neither man knew or could imagine.

There was nothing left to fight about. Lorshal's unholy progeny was already aboard the timeship and would now make its way to the primeval enclaves of the Leiru in the Deep Past, thousands, if not millions of years out of reach, out of touch, beyond the knowledge or ken of mortals or gods.

“I concede the victory, such as it is...” Balaasq shrugged his mighty shoulders as if to somehow slough off the weight of his defeat by the wizard whose deviousness and very adroit spells of precipitative defense he tragically underestimated. It was a mistake that he would not make again. So he swore to himself silently and most vehemently. He was also quite certain that there would indeed be another meeting between them, one in which he fully intended to be far better prepared to kill a wizard despite his devious spells and subtle cantrips. If it took years of hard work and struggle he didn't care, he would do whatever it took to gain the means to defeat the wizard no matter the cost. He would pay the price.

“Well met and very well played...” Sneered Lorshal as he bowed ever so slightly. “I, too, have some interest in the techniques of sword-play. Perhaps you would do me the honor of tutoring me in the use of the scimitar...” The wizard drew aside his rich robes to reveal his own blade hovering at the most discrete interval from its master's person like some bird of prey eagerly anticipating the command to strike. From anyone else, at any other time, it would have been a clear and present threat, a challenge even. Now, Balaasq was not so sure. He was profoundly disturbed, his emotions were a writhing mass of conflicting impulses that clouded his mind and paralyzed his warrior's soul as if it were immured in harsh black ice. He knew it had to be some sort of spell that the damnable wizard had veiled over himself. A trap that he had blundered into like some first-year apprentice. He could feel the pulsing, cloying threads of the snaring spells entangling his brain like the stinging tendrils of invisible jellyfish.

“Spare me further mockery wizard,” Balaasq grumbled in his deepest, most intimidating voice that he typically only ever used on students who had proven themselves fools or dabblers and not truly worthy of their custom-made swords. “You have won. Your grotesque mockery of what passes for a living, breathing, thinking being has passed beyond my sword's reach and is now a thing of the Deep Past, removed utterly from our world-as-it-is, a cancerous blot upon the whole of creation tainting everything with its abject foulness.” Self-recrimination made Balaasq's words come out cracked and bleeding with guilt at his failure to stop Lorshal's evil scheme. The wizard's cruel spells further exacerbated and intensified Balaasq's shame and self-loathing. Deep inside himself Balaasq tried to regain possession of his emotions, to shrug off the lingering effects of the spells.

“Now you truly wound me Balaasq. That you would think so little of my aesthetics, my sensibilities that I would send off some half-formed shambling monstrosity into the Deep Past. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Did you think that I would model her upon my own uniquely regal countenance?”

“I no longer am sure just what to think.” Balaasq's voice cracked with the doubts that Lorshal's defensive spells had insidiously, silently whispered into his usually placid and honest mind.

“Well then let me put your turgid mind at ease in this one respect; I formed Eva from the most promising spiral strands that I single-handedly extracted from a dozen of the most beautiful concubines of Alru-Khan Nyctozza himself, mocked be his name in all due malice and spite.” Lorshal spat with utmost contrived contempt for the crestfallen blade-master's benefit.

“Truly? You would affront my sworn enemy in such a manner?” Balaasq stuttered in disbelief, his momentary shock at Lorshal's casual revelation making him overlook the snapping of several strands of the spells enmeshed within his aura like vaguely discernible ink blots that flowed into increasingly disturbing Rorschachian silhouettes of monstrous fears and bloated doubts.

“But of course. I just did.” Lorshal smiled broadly in a most unsettling manner.

“But...” Balaasq stammered. The spells influence was fading. The doubts he felt were his own now. Balaasq could feel the stinging tendrils of the spells slipping free from his brain, allowing his mind to begin to clear itself of the inky clouds of malevolent uncertainty. This wizard was dangerous. His words were like poisoned darts that struck all the most vulnerable spots. He felt naked despite his armor, defenseless in spite of his blade. Balaasq was beginning to suspect some perverse sorcerous scheme that undermined and threw into question the very order of Polite Society and the role of humanity, such as it was these days, in its once stately, comfortable progression. A slight, momentary touch of vertigo flushed through Balaasq and he almost didn't hear Lorshal's parting words as he turned laughing and left the blade-adept standing there in the early morning sunlight dumbfounded and in the first throes of a full-blown existential crisis.

“My dear Balaasq, you don't really think that this is the first time that I have sent some thrice-pregnant harlot's get off into the Deep Time, do you?”

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