Sunday, July 19, 2020

Challenge Time! Haunted House Challenge





Hey fellow Bards! It's time for our Summer Challenge! You guys all voted and it looks like the winner was:





Rules

This is a pretty self explanatory challenge: Write a story involving a haunted house. Now, however you decide to do that is up to you. It can be a real ghost, or it can just be psychological. It can be funny or scary, or both. That's up to you!

Date

The Deadline for this one is September 18th

I'm looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Family Heirloom Challenge: "The Red and the Wave"-- by Joseph Leskey (Part 2)



Part II

Younger pummeled path, Fish Call.

“It is nearly time for dinner,” observed Syphir brightly.

“We are almost to the well,” said Jasinta.

“Of course we must press on.”

Frent coughed in a wealthy sort of way. “Dear fellow, I quite agree, though I am ruined with hunger.”

Jasinta seemed to have no pity on his ruination and pressed on determinedly, a hand to her side. Lady Erstella and the tutor both looked rather bemused, but they followed closely behind her without a word.

The company reached a hill and Frent, who apparently hadn’t noticed it in the distance, moaned, “Oh, let us go around. I couldn’t foot it.”

“You can!” yelled Syphir encouragingly. “This adventure is creating you a new and better man!” In response, Frent made a noble effort, tripped on a slippery stone, and tumbled down.

A man walked past him, holding a sheep. “Governor,” he said, absolutely gliding up the hill.

“Erg,” said Frent. “I’m useless and a failure; it was an ill-fated moon that rose the night of my birth, and ominous were the clouds.”

Syphir sprang down to him. “That’s not bad, fellow. We’ll sharpen that head of yours yet.” He reached out a hand, and with noble strength of character, Frent seized it and pulled himself up.

“Where have they all gone?” he asked.

Syphir looked. “Over the hill. Come along.” Syphir began pushing him up the hill. A gent in a bright uniform and numerous medals navigated around them.

“Dear, dear,” he said, turning and clicking his heels, putting a hand on the golden hilt of his sword and another to his magnificent mustache. “Dear, dear, dear. The young gentry these days. Probably fabulously wealthy?”

“Oh,” said Frent, shrugging off his friend and walking alongside the man, “rather. Thunderer is my house.”

“Well, well. Thunderer. Well, well. I’ve heard that name, of course. 1236. Blasted the bloody foe. Well, well.” He pulled a pistol from a large pocket and used it to scratch his ear. “Yes, her majesty, may she live forever and happily, her majesty herself is very much interested in your house. War’s brewing! And there are rumors about your house, as ever.”

“War?” said Syphir. “There’s not such a thing these days.”

“Hey ho!” said the gentlemen, twirling around and restoring the pistol to his pocket. “What’s this?” He drew his saber and put it under Syphir’s chin, looking at him carefully.

“Sir!” exclaimed Syphir, a trifle hotly.

Sir shook his head. “Bless my blasted boots. Are you not Syphir, my sister’s son?”

“Uncle Ollie?”

“The Honorable Belligerent Oliver, if you please, sir, decorated and all.” He seized Syphir around the shoulders and gave him a brutal embrace. “I’m overjoyed to see you, my lad! How have you been wasting your life, eh? Are you rich?”

“No, but this fellow is, and he’s the truest friend in all the world.”

“Well, to think!” said T. H. B. Oliver. “The ancient alliance still stands. And what are you doing in these parts? Don’t tell me, ’cause I’m here to find out! Commissioned by the queen, with honor. Count me in on whatever path you’re treading. It’s what I’m here for. Come along, then. Let’s join up with the rest of your party.” He sheathed his saber, put an arm around Syphir and Frent both, opened his mouth, closed it again, and broke out into a decent hum. He rushed the both of them up the hill and down the other side before Frent could quite grasp how he was doing it, but the road was empty for a long way. In the distance, a circle of cottages could be seen, and the road led up right to center of this circle, where stood an unimpressive well.

“Now,” said T. H. B. Oliver, “where are your friends?”

“I don’t know,” said Frent, somewhat out of breath – he and Syphir were still being borne along at a decent rate. At that moment, they shot through a brief puff of pink fog and the scene changed. It was the same road, the same houses, the same terrain, but the man with the sheep had appeared nearby arguing with a spectral somebody. And that was not the only specter. Indeed, the more Frent looked, the more specters appeared and floated out of the ground and the air and even each other.

“Not to worry,” said T. H. B. Oliver. “Head down and homeward bound, that’s what I used to tell my division.”

“We’re not homeward bound,” moaned Frent.

“Well,” said the other, shaking him encouragingly, “the idea is, once the task is done, then you’re homeward bound, and thus so you are from the start. My compliments, madame,” he added as a transparent lady walked past. “Ah, and if you look carefully, there are your friends. Bring out your best feet.” He guided them around many apparitions, spewing forth many a polite nothing. It was some little time before they reached the rest of their party, but they managed to do it just before the rest of their party reached the well. Villagers were beginning to stream into the town from various fields about, and they were looking somewhat displeased with the specters.

“There you are again,” said Jasinta. “Hello, Oliver.”

“Jasi?” said Oliver, freeing his arms from his companions.

“The same.”

“I thought you were…”

“I am, but I must bring home the debt of Thunderer.”

“Hello?” said Frent, a bit offended at this turn of phrase.

“You know each other?” asked Syphir, quite shocked.

“Here is the well.” Jasinta looked at it for a long moment. “It will have an inscription on it, and that inscription will bear the authority to install in you my power.” She stooped and studied the rim of the well. “Interesting. It’s not a very ancient language, and it’s a human one. It says…‘By blood I bought it and not my own, by walls I found it – they of bitterest foe, in time I took it left now all alone, and I rose above my legion. And thus is my boast, and the boast of my house after me, the boast of Burnthede, the boast of its iron, the boast of its steel and copper. For the old ways are not mine, and I would conquer, and I even still conquer in the person of Wey’ – ‘Weytra. Let her come, let it be so.’ Whoever this Weytra is, she now has the power of Thunderer. There is a great deception here.”

Frent made a rather pathetic noise. “What do you mean?”

Syphir laughed. “I have an Aunt Weytra.”

“You do?” said Jasinta, looking surprised. Oliver looked surprised with her.

“Oh, yes, but she passed away two – actually three – hundred years ago.”

“Oh,” said Jasinta. “Then who is this Weytra? I cannot see her. Oh, I also cannot see your Father.” She looked at Frent. “This could be very bad. I shall return.” She vanished.

Late evening. Gills Boulevard.

A great light appeared in Gills Boulevard, and many a person looked on it in wonder. The fog retreated and the gloom was broken. Jasinta emerged from the light, looking about warily. Sunlight flickered both around and seemingly from her.

An old woman walked up to her. “Are we supposed to fall to our knees and serve you forever? I would.”

“No, thank you; have you seen a…?”

“We see any curiosity that passes. The man passed into there and he’s up yonder in Retters Valley. He has a high doom upon him, but I see you’re not one to trifle in dooms. Ha ha.”

“Thank you.” Jasinta navigated into the narrow street. Many awed faces looked up, and an old gentlemen wearing two top hats tipped them at her. She smiled awkwardly at them, and suddenly the entire street was covered in precious ores and gems.

“Oh, sorry,” said Jasinta. She looked about in horror and fled.

“This is pleasurable,” said somebody behind her, and there was great laughter, but those people did not hear the mournful cracking in the depths of the earth, nor the rumor of anger between the clouds.

Jasinta sped on, coming to a wide open area. The earth shook, and several snails bulged into existence on the walls, leaving deep glowing trails as they moved forward. Jasinta sniffed. But then she raised her eyebrows. There was Geoffrey Thunderer kneeling before two tiny children who sat on the street. None of them could feel the sea surging miles away, a powerful rage growing in it against wrongful magic and excited by a final chaotic mistake. Yet somehow they would be untouched.

Retters Valley, Park Circa Sum, Branwyn.

“There’s a sleek cat and no mistake,” said the tiny boy in front of Geoffrey. “Most of the ones I’ve seen are missing an ear or two, and they have the range.”

“The mange, Baveir,” said the girl who sat beside him.

“That’s the one.” Baveir reached out a hand and Lorry pounced on him. The air split with his laughter.

“Now, how did you two end up here?” asked Geoffrey.

“What’s it to you?” asked Baveir shrewdly. “You look like a madishion. With my luck, you prob’ly are one of the ones who eat little tykes – of which number I am one – and use the bones for barber-us experience.”

“No, no. No such thing.”

“Well, you are a madishion.”

“A magician? I suppose I was, yes.”

“Hm. And you’re a rich toff. Do you have a money? We can always use monies. If we don’t have monies we can’t buy things and then we starve and die.”

“I do, actually.” Geoffrey reached into his coat.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the girl. “We couldn’t take it.”

“Why not?”

“Somebody would sniff it out.” She shrugged. “Most people here are decent, but…”

“Oh, yes,” said Geoffrey. “How did you end up here?”

“How does anybody end up on the streets, covey?” yowled Baveir. “Poverty, disgrace, and the ills of society. There’s your answer.”

“There it is,” said Geoffrey.

“It’s hard living on the streets,” continued Baveir. “It rains when it’s sunny and it wrecks haddock on young bones. What are you doin’ here anyway, gov? What’s your particular interest?”

“Well, that’s a long story. For now, how do you say I could help you best?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Baveir. “What comes to the top of me head is that you could adopt us – we are poor and friendless and no one would mind – and then I could ask you about banks for years and years. I imagine you know about banks. Old Pete knew about banks, but he got sick and he says he’s lost his voice, so he won’t tell me about banks any more. I want to know about banks ’cause old Pete says they’re bound to fail and soon. So why don’t you adopt us? There’s nothing to it. Just shove us in any old cab and take us to your big house in the country. We won’t mind. Do you have a nanny there? I could use a nanny. Terly’s good at bringing me up, but she’s my sister, and a sister can’t do that motherly influence a chap my age needs. I’m dread fearful I might fall into bad company and become a repredate, as young chaps my age do. Was – were you ever a repredate?” He passed Lorry to his sister. Lorry yawned and licked her hand.

“Consistently,” said Geoffrey. “But as for my big house in the country, I’ve vowed never to return to it.”

“Poor fellow’s stupid-minded,” breathed Baveir with great sorrow.

“Well, magic, you know.”

“Are you really a magician?” Terly asked through a quantity of cat as Lorry climbed over her.

“Well, I was. I gave up the magic – it was awful, something beyond what humans could deal with.”

“Don’t open your cake,” said Baveir sternly, “unless and only if you have something pleasant to say. My sister wants to see magic, so I say you ought to do some. Go on, then.”

A wooden ring snaked around Geoffrey’s finger and a great shimmering black stone grew out of it. All four (including the cat) stared.

“Did you do that?” asked Terly, breathless.

“No,” said Geoffrey. A wisp of silver light shot out of his hand. “I never would have thought.” The silver light spread. Lorry immediately dived for the closest one. The tendrils sprang towards Terly and Baveir and rings like the first, though smaller, appeared on their own hands.

“Excellent,” said Geoffrey, “this is more like it. A plan is beginning to form. What would you say if we went and visited my cousin in Greia? She is an uncommonly nice person, and she’s also a seer – do you know what that means?”

“Here, gov,” said Baveir indignantly, “how young do you think I am?”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Greia,” said Terly eagerly.

“Yes.” Baveir scratched his head. “Isn’t that where rich people sit on balconies all day and paint portraits of each other?”

Geoffrey burst into loud laughter. “Yes, indeed it is.”

“Excellent.” Baveir stood up. “I will collect my belongings.” He stooped for a small hat. “A hand up, sister?” He made a show of huffing and puffing as she offered her hand and he pulled her up.

Baveir turned to Geoffrey, beaming. “I use this hat when I’m begging. When a little child like me is begging, it’s best to just walk around with a little hat and say ‘If you please, sir?’ to the gentlemen, or ‘A penny if you please, ma’m?’ to the ladies. But now I won’t have to beg because you’re rich.”

“Well…” began Geoffrey, but Baveir would not suffer him to argue.

“There’s an old man around here who’s awful nice. People pay him lots of monies because he has two hats, and whenever he comes past here, which is very often, he showers it around for everybody. We can take it then because everybody else got some too. Him and Rigglesford is why we survived as long as we did. Have you ever heard of Rigglesford?”

“No.”

“Well, I shan’t tell you until we get to Greia. And I want to take the old man with the two hats. I’m fearful for his health. He has a bad cough, doesn’t he, Terly?”

Terly nodded. “He caught cold, and the air’s bad for him.”

“Well, we’ll take him to my cousin too, by all means.” Geoffrey smiled. “Let us find him.”

Night. The well, Fish Call.

T. H. B. Oliver leaned against the well, tall shiny boots gleaming almost as brightly as his wide, easy grin. “Yes, indeed!” he exclaimed for no particular reason, and not for the first time. “Good job I’m a patient man, what?”

Syphir lay on the ground in the grips of melancholy. Frent stood looking doubtfully at him, and his grandmother and tutor stood looking doubtfully at everything. The villagers – those that were still awake – walked passed them all and shook their heads.

“Better that I should have died on that table so many days ago!” cried Syphir.

“Yesterday, you mean?” said Frent.

“What if she’s injured? What if she’s hurt? And no help is coming. Oh, I’m a wretched man.”

“Yes, indeed!” exclaimed T. H. B. Oliver. “Good job – what’s that?”

An ominous sphere of light approached. Ghosts fled from it, wailing, and some who were not speedy enough evaporated as it neared them. The earth shook periodically as it came nearer.

“Now here’s something to liven the blood,” said Oliver, grinning. “Everybody down, or I’ll put you down myself.” They all ducked. The villagers vanished into their houses as a strange beam of light wove its way through the sky, landing on the well.

The air shimmered with a bright light and rang with a thunderous sound, and suddenly there was a boom behind them. They looked up to see a gigantic metal leg extending in a long arch far above them.

“Are these my relatives?” said a grating, inhuman voice. “Are these the last branches of our noble tree? Do they fade so lightly in the house of smoke? Yes, specifically, I am speaking to you, Syphir Fite, and to you, honorable belligerent.”

Syphir stood up in indignation. “Do you mean to say that you are my Aunt Weytra?”

“Of course I am your Aunt Weytra. Where is your sense, boy?”

“My Aunt Weytra is made out of crude iron?” Syphir said slowly, as if he didn’t quite believe it.

“Yes, and she’s very pleased about it too. Metal – especially iron – and magic do not mingle; everybody knows that. Yet they have now. And, oh ho! Do I see my dear little puppet, the fool Frent?”

“I beg,” stuttered Frent, “I beg to—”

“Well, of course you do. I do not deign to notice your tutor and your grandmother, for they are nothing to my superiority. I am unduly powerful. Hang death and everything to do with it, I say. I am nearly three hundred years old, and I am inconceivably impressive. I am incredibly proud of myself in my actions of the last centuries, and I’m not one to cringe away from boasting. Can you imagine how gratifying it is, after three hundred years of letting an entire house have an ancient being’s power, to take it for yourself? I doubt you can.”

“But, but, but,” said Frent. “I thought this well – my magic…”

“It would have been,” said Weytra coldly. “You now have no magic at all. It’s all mine, stolen through you from Jasinta.” The metal aunt laughed. “Jasinta! Two badly placed bullets nearly destroyed her. She will be nothing. And for so long she has been bound because of your family! I was utterly ingenious.”

“So now,” said Lady Erstella, “you want to take Burnthede for your own, or the world? You do sound a bit crazed, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Yes,” began the metal aunt. But then she screeched. “No! No, no! I care nothing for this planet. I hate this bubble of existence, where we are hidden away from a higher reality. But this will all end when Jasinta does. And thenmy plans go into full action. Shall I detail them?”

“No,” said the tutor. “We all know how evil humans work. It’s all the same.”

“Shall I crush you, little man, beneath my enormous metal foot?”

“No, thank you,” said the tutor, bowing low. “My apologies. Beg pardon. So sorry.”

“Hmmmmmmmm.”

“Wait,” said Syphir. “Do you know where Jasinta is? Did you…?”

“That depends on what you mean. But, now that you mention it, there is no need to wait for her to return. She is exactly where I want her already. Follow me at your peril.” The huge metal body glowed and partially assimilated into the air before diving into the well with a great splash.

Syphir immediately jumped to the edge of the well. “I may be a weak, flippant man, and a lowly, but where matters of the heart are concerned, my honor will uphold me through perilous and absurd circumstances.” He plunged into the well.

“He’ll drown!” bellowed Frent.

Somebody poked their head out of a cottage window. “Here, did your friend just go into our well? And the great metal one?”

“Yes,” said Frent, “they did, fellow.”

“That’s blinkin’ well indecent. He’ll dirty it an’ all. Get him out, while he’s still kicking.” The window was shut up.

“Well, am I not her majesties loyal servant?” T. H. B. Oliver prepared to leap. “Oh, right. Hang it all; I have to take a report back. I can’t do that dead. Poof, what am I worried about, then? Killed in the line of duty! No greater honor.” Into the well he jumped with a massive splash. Frent flew to its side. Oliver was floating there, sopping wet.

“Well, here I am,” said the honorable belligerent. “Boots full of water.”

“Have a hand,” said Frent kindly, holding one out. The man latched hold and hauled himself out.

“Oh, look,” he said.

A few columns of stiff-looking men holding stiff-looking sheep had appeared and they jerkily approached the well. The company stared at them nervously.

“You all get in like you mean it,” said Oliver. “I smell trouble. And I expect I can’t get in as a particular peculiar to my person – probably my military training.” He strode loftily towards the row of stiff sheep-holders, and said, “Gents.”

They advanced. The tutor and Lady Erstella approached the well.

“What, what?” Oliver cried. “Who are you lot, now? State your business, I say! In the queen’s name, if you please.”

One sheep turned into an enormous rusty scythe and its wielder spun it towards Oliver. His sword was drawn and pushing it away in an instant.

“Hm,” said Oliver. He struck a fell swoop and the men all became creatures of shadow, armed and armored in much rusty equipment. They fell upon him and more sprang from the air. The ground rumbled, rocks split, and plants turned black.

“Oi, a little quarter for a chap.” He glided backwards and drew a pistol. “Oi, you lot back there, get in.”

Lady Erstella climbed to the edge of the well and rashly plunged. She vanished. The tutor, after some hesitation, turned from the well and a strange white pattern appeared about his hands. He pointed at the horde of rusty wraiths and some of their number were consumed in a white flash.

Frent stared. “You are a wizard!”

“I have some skill with…these things.” He advanced and cast another sweeping white wave. Suddenly, a familiar, enormous man appeared, scratching his head under his hat.

“Off duty,” he explained shortly. “Rigglesford at your service.” He swung a club at a nearby phantom and utterly vanquished it.

Frent backed toward the well and gripped the rim. He turned and looked into his depths. He crawled onto the rim and swallowed. Suddenly, there was a gunshot behind him and, his nerve frazzled, he fell forwards – and down. The last thing he heard was Oliver calling, “You are very welcome!”

The ocean

Some supernatural force seized Frent and would not release him. It dragged him at terrible speeds through infinite liquid. He was too shocked to breathe or to worry about breathing. Dark scenes passed by in the smallest instants, and the world grew white. Suddenly, he was floating on what he suspected was the middle of the ocean. His eyes adjusted and he saw his grandmother and Syphir were both in the distance, swimming energetically towards a small ship. A great mass of iron protruded briefly from the water near them.

“Hello, Frent,” said a voice near him.

“Hello?” He looked around. A colossal wave threw him for possibly a hundred yards, yet in comfort, and he was gently received back into the ocean, directly on top of a metal protrusion. His grandmother and Syphir were only a few yards away now, but they apparently had no thought of looking backwards; they had nearly reached the ship.

“I can’t swim,” moaned Frent, swimming away from the metal. An enormous hand suddenly grabbed hold of him, but a colossal blue dragon smashed into the hand and caught Frent up, the next instant dropping him on the deck. It fell beside him, only it was of a sudden an equally large snake, and it wrapped itself around the mast and slipped lightly into the water.

Frent stared. A few moments later, Lady Erstella emerged over the side of the ship, followed immediately by Syphir. He looked repulsed at using a snake as a rope, especially when it morphed yet again, and became a grim middle-aged woman bearing a cutlass.

“My apologies,” he stammered.

“I won’t have apologies. We must defend Jasinta.”

“She isn’t here,” said Syphir aimlessly.

“I will take you to her.”

Salva led the way to a door which opened to a staircase. “Now, the ship is going to start tossing in the waves again, and you’ll just have to be accustomed to it. The hideous iron blob outside will be stayed for a short while because of the way in which things operate. Jasinta will not be expecting us. Poor thing thinks she has to run all around the world.”

She opened a door at the bottom of the stairs and the floor began rolling beneath them. Frent stumbled over to look through the doorway, but there was no light beyond it.

“No,” said Salva, “this door does not lead to the outer void; it’s just very dark out here.” She stepped through and vanished, and the others followed her cautiously. The ground no longer rolled. There was some light in one direction and in that direction Salva went. The place was made of some heavily interlocked white woody material. Visible around a corner was the edge of a pool, a very small pool, it so happened, behind which was a stone chair. A large rough chamber spread out around these two items. Two passageways led off from this chamber, one glowing a flickering red and one periodically flashing a brilliant white. Mere moments after they entered the chamber, Jasinta appeared in the chair, looking dazed. She was not wearing any bandages. Complex symbols were being woven on her wrists and they glowed like fire.

“You are alive still?” asked Syphir anxiously.

“Probably,” replied Jasinta. “I don’t know much right now. The main part of my consciousness is away. Salva, do you have any tea?”

“No.”

There was a deep thud in the distance. Then a huge metal hand pushed through the floor and faded. A specter much like the ones with the scythes appeared over the hole, but this one looked very much like an elderly aunt, though not a very nice one. She glided towards Jasinta.

“I have waited a long time for this day. See how masterfully a house has been exploited over centuries to ensnare you. See how I am the cumulative power that can overthrow something so ancient and so fundamental as your life. I find it fascinating. I daily thank my ancestors for their ruthless intelligence.” She reached out a hand and pushed against a sphere like glass that appeared around Jasinta. It grew red where she pushed and started to crack.

“Go on, then,” shouted Syphir. “You’ll have to get past me.” He swaggered over.

“What is this? A member of my own house?”

“No,” said Frent, as if in a trance, “take me.”

“Well, that would be amusing.”

“But first,” said Frent’s grandmother, “I’d like you to hear my claim.”

“Your what?” she turned, looking legitimately confused.

“I too am of the house of Thunderer.”

“By marriage only, I think.”

“I, dear madam, am an authoritative member of my house. My son and grandson may have given up their potency and will, but I have given up neither.”

“That is a very good point,” said Salva thoughtfully.

A greatsword suddenly appeared in Weytra’s hand, and she ripped through the air towards Erstella. Syphir and then Frent lunged after her but fell on their faces, and she swung the sword.

A scepter appeared in Erstella’s hand, and the sword clanged off, bursting into mist.

“I should never have included scepters in the curse,” muttered Weytra, falling back.

Lady Erstella was not inactive. She raised the staff and Jasinta winced markedly. The symbols on her wrists glowed with fervent intensity. An enormous ape with a cutlass stood suddenly in front of Weytra.

Erstella spoke. “By the authority vested in me et cetera et cetera, I utterly cast down the design of this Weytra (as far as I am able), and I blot out utterly the words on the well which we have just seen and nullify the power thereof or any curse connected to those words. In short, I eradicate the curse and restore things to a more perfect order in any way in which my authority has relevancy. So be it.”

Nothing very definite happened immediately, but Weytra seemed to diminish with every word. The staff suddenly pulsed blue and shattered, and with it shattered Jasinta’s chair. The earth shook, and Weytra fell backwards with a great trailing haze. Rocks and dirt dropped into the chamber, and the floor shuddered.

“One thing remains, I think,” said Salva, suddenly in the form of a human again. “There is much of the Thunderer way of life that depends on the power, and Frent, I perceive, is now the lord of that estate. Do you give it up to whatever judgment may naturally befall it?”

“Of course he doesn’t,” moaned Weytra.

Frent looked very troubled. He opened his mouth. Syphir gulped. Frent opened his mouth further. “Will my house tumble?”

Syphir was dismayed. “You think of something like that in a time like this?”

Salva shrugged. “I really couldn’t say.”

“And the servants?” Frent shifted his weight. “They would be safe?”

Syphir looked rather ashamed. “Ah, yes, forgot about that.”

Salva looked rather amazed. “Ah, yes,” she said.

Jasinta rose painfully from her broken chair. Her wrists no longer had anything red or glowing on them. There was a blurred movement and suddenly another Jasinta stood in the room, a hand to her bandages. In a moment, the Jasinta who had been seated disappeared in a whirlwind of nothing definable, and Jasinta breathed a long breath. “Things are much better now. I think I can risk removing your servants from your house. Your father is doing quite well.”

Frent gulped. “That’s good – very. Kindly do displace the servants, if you will.”

Jasinta disappeared for several seconds, and then flickered back into existence, stumbling. “There.”

Frent gulped again. “I give up my estate to the natural judgments.”

Jasinta shimmered, and she looked apologetic. “Well. It was judged.” The room cracked and seemed brighter, but then Weytra rose.

“And so passed my glorious plan, but I was prepared for eventualities. Yes, indeed I was. You ought to know how impressive I am, with the way I can toss magic authority about.”

“Quite,” said Jasinta quietly.

Salva manged to quite convincingly draw her cutlass, in spite of the fact that it was already drawn.

Weytra laughed. “This circumstance hastens my schemes, and I tap into my fullest strength. No sword could prevail against me. Also, I summon my trusty slaves.” The rusty specters burst into existence on the other side of the room, and the honorable belligerent Oliver fell from one, Inspector Rigglesford burst through another, and a glowing tutor spun through several, obliterating two. The wraiths were a much reduced and not very impressive force.

“Give me a sword,” said Syphir grimly. “We can take them!”

“Well, allow me to show my hand a bit, then.” Weytra expanded a little and a horde of rusty ghosts and sundry compilations of organic material – this largely being a variety of bones – rose up behind her. “And the battle is met!”

Extremely late night. Gardet ser Haveleig. Greia.

Geoffrey F. Thunderer appeared in Greia. A swirl of silver wrapped around him and whipped Terly, Baveir, and the old man of two hats out of the air. They all stared at the garden about them. Warm-colored flowers were artistically placed, short and tall trees appeared just exactly where they might be desired, and herbs grew in charmingly arranged baskets. Some places were wide open, some were shady and covered in velvety leaves, and everywhere the grass was trim and soft. A stone structure had been thoughtfully set encircling the garden, largely appearing as a wall, but a little ways away rising up into a large stone house, a cheerful glow shining from the windows. The delicate glass doors facing them were wide open, as were the several wide, arched windows. A gravel expanse extended from the house, surrounding a little pool with two sculptures shaped cunningly like hares. These sat staring at each other, and water tumbled lazily off their backs.

The jolly face of a middle-aged man appeared through some bushes. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Visitors.” His head disappeared, and he came jigging into sight. “Spies from Burnthede! Is that not my esteemed cousin-in-law? And you three I don’t believe I have ever met. My name is Caerto. I can’t help it, but it is.”

“Poor beggars, that’s who we are,” said the old man of the hats, “desperate characters.”

I’m Baveir and this is Terly,” said the little fellow with dignity. “We are not desperate, but we are very poor.”

“Well, how excellent you landed here! Nobody’s poor in Greia!”

“Well,” said Geoffrey. “The matter of poverty in Greia is…”

“Don’t you worry about any of your Burnthede pride. We don’t hold with such stuff in Greia. Dear, dear. Geoffrey, look at yourself, man. I glance properly at you now, and you look at least forty-seven. What have you been doing to yourself? Now, you’ll be wanting to see the fleur llonnath of my heart. My darling wife!” He stayed still a moment, with his hand pressed dramatically to his chest, before trilling, “¡Amairte!

Forthwith, there was a person of very radiant appearance emerging from the house. She looked at the gathering for a moment, and then beamed. “¡D'cosin amtir!” she cried, rushing over the gravel like one born to such things despite her uncommonly thin shoes.

Geoffrey went forward to meet her, and everybody else followed him. In a moment, she had seized each of them (excluding her husband) by the arms and had granted each of them (excluding her husband) a kiss on each cheek. She seemed to be utterly thrilled.

“Geoffrey!” she said. “You’ve been around far too much magic. And you three? You want some crackers. My name is Lladh-Sairpe, but I’m called Cetuil. What are those rings? Geoffrey, this is really excellent. You’ve finally settled down properly with magic. Those are really nice.”

“I don’t know where they come from,” said Geoffrey, holding up the ring. “But the magic feels purer.”

“I think the magic feels the same,” returned Cetuil. “You feel purer using it.”

Geoffrey didn’t reply, but Cetuil was already guiding them irresistibly to a little table. “Let’s have tea!” she said. “Unless you want to sleep. Sleep anywhere you like.” She grinned at Geoffrey. “Some major thing is happening in the core of the world. I think a great shadow has passed from your house. It still lives, though, and my sight of it is rather cloudy. Your mother and son have done very great things today.”

“Have they really?” said Geoffrey, looking troubled.

A possibly subterranean chamber, an indeterminate location.

The battle was most definitely, most loudly, and most violently met. The onslaught of swishing and screeching metallic decay was defied by a bright but tremulous defense. T. H. B. Oliver exuded bravado as he performed great feats of arms, but Salva repulsed the foe with a lethal calm. Frent and Syphir stood back to back, Frent holding a rapier borrowed off of Oliver, and Syphir holding a borrowed pistol. Frent was amazed and comforted to find energy trailing through his arms, infusing the sword with an inspiring vanquishing effect. Syphir did not seem to be having any such fair fortune, but the tutor stood nearby manufacturing great white arcs that conveniently kept most of the specters and some of the skeletal forces at bay.

Inspector Rigglesford seemed to favor any foe composed of bones and everywhere his baton could be seen in the act of pulverizing.

Jasinta had disappeared into the shadows some time ago and Lady Erstella had followed her. Weytra had also done so.

A huge burly thing made from stones pushed though the battle and crashed into Frent. He fell with a cry, and his rapier disappeared into a howling mass of spirits. A stone fist swung toward his head, but Inspector Rigglesford appeared, shoving aside the blow. Another fist struck the policeman down, and he took the opportunity to adjust his helmet.

“No hard feelings,” he said, absolutely brutalizing what could be considered the thing’s knee. It stumbled and crashed into more howling spirits. In the far reaches of the chamber, there was a sudden fiery glow, a tremendous conflagration, and a tidal wave of the enemy, burning and evaporating as they were flung through the air. A great blue dragon crouched there, panting heavily and smoking.

The horde stilled and cowered back into the opposite side of the chamber. Inspector Rigglesford heaved Frent to his feet.

“That’s right,” said the dragon in a roughly Salva-like voice. “Settle down. Whew!” She lowered her head tiredly. The honorable belligerent limped out of the horde.

“Nasty blighters,” he said.

Everybody waited as if expecting something different to happen, and it did. There was a definitively evil screech, and Jasinta crashed to the ground in a dark shockwave. Frent’s grandmother came flying down after her, but a soft white glow from around Jasinta slowed her descent to quite a comfortable speed. 

Weytra appeared, floating above them with random bits of metal twisting out of and around her. She reached downwards and sparkling darkness glimmered and crashed in a monumental pillar toward Jasinta. The light of the room faded and failed. But a spark appeared over Jasinta and then raged upwards, prevailing against the murk and smashing against the ceiling in myriad colors, and Jasinta was standing. Frent found himself and his companions being hurled powerfully towards Salva, who dropped her dragon guise. In the midst of the splendor, Weytra’s dark shape was hurled to the other side of the chamber and her entire army disintegrated in a great wave. Jasinta focused the light with a hand, and Weytra herself fell to the floor and struggled forward, flinging back the magic, but still it approached her. A dark force burst from her hand and the two opposing powers vied erratically for dominance.

“You cannot defeat me,” stated Jasinta.

“Of course I can’t. Your rule is absolute in this pathetic cave. Accordingly, I don’t mean to conquer you – just to fracture the world a little.” The earth cracked as she spoke, and a thin chasm was rent in the floor.

“Oh,” said Jasinta, “yes.”

“And also to show you that I am a powerful enemy, not a mere trifling human.”

“Which you have effectively done.” Jasinta pushed the light a little closer.

“But my true strength is not in enchantment, and that is the most important point. I have conquered you in one area, and very soon you will find out how.” Her darkness expanded. “I do admire you, though, and your friends. There’s merely seven of them and you, and none of them harmed. I revere that.”

Jasinta said nothing. Tendrils of red were becoming more prominent in the energy bursting from her. Weytra finally seemed to be truly struggling as her darkness was reduced to a small, swirling sphere. The floor around her was in an instant destroyed as the intensity of the onslaught became greater.

“And we’re done!” said Weytra. She held up a hand, and Jasinta stopped her attack, releasing it as a weak shockwave that bounced quickly around the room. The lighting returned to normal.

Weytra stomped and the floor disappeared around her. “We’ll meet again.” She fell and vanished in a multitude of purple rays.

Salva stalked up to Jasinta. “That,” she said, looking down into the hole, “is, in fact, the outer void.”

Jasinta bent next to it. “Maybe.” The walls and ceiling of the chamber began to crumble and fall. “I’ll take us out.” Suddenly, they all stood on the deck of the ship. Jasinta looked at them worriedly. “She has started a war. The queen has just allowed a declaration against Kadene.”

“Kadene!” exclaimed T. H. B. Oliver. “Impossible. There was war brewing, but it wasn’t…Kadene is one of the closest allies of Greia. We would never attack a friendly nation.”

“Nevertheless, the declaration is swiftly being enacted. Dark powers and twisted things of metal have been active in Kadene, and trade relations with them have been turning cold; Burnthede feels it must face the threat.”

“The audacity of my aunt!” Oliver cried. “Kadene? I’m upset. I am truly upset. Oh, I hope we don’t end up fighting Greia. Allies for nearly three hundred years now! This is disturbing.”

“Well, glad to help and all,” said Inspector Rigglesford. “It’s nearly my time back in Branwyn. Bless me, I haven’t slept a wink tonight.” He disappeared before anybody could respond.

“I had better report back to her majesty,” said Oliver, looking seriously worried. “Invading Kadene! Who would have thought? Where are we?”

Jasinta didn’t tell him. “Shall I send you back to Branwyn?”

“Oh, yes. Please do.”

She threw a hand forward and he disappeared with a snap, waving.

Jasinta looked nervous. “I will take you all back to your – your estate.”

Lady Erstella grinned. “We’ll have to see what happened to it.”

Branwyn faded around them, and they remained in a bit of a haze for a little while.

“Look,” said Jasinta’s voice, “I am sorry.”

“What—?” began Frent.

The lawn of the Thunderer estate was still immaculate. But some other things were evidently not so well off. In front of them was utter destruction and chaos. Stone, wood, furniture, countless household implements, and almost everything else imaginable was spread out in a perfect circle, looking quite absurd in the moonlight. Numerous servants stood about in their night attire, discussing and looking shocked. Some of them, though, were congregating a little ways away from the destruction and they seemed to be having a picnic. A very few of them were sleeping in their beds, apparently oblivious of their relocation to the outdoors.

“The stable and the tool-shed over there are still standing,” ventured Jasinta.

Frent worked his jaw grimly, and looked. “Yes,” he said in a very controlled voice, “yes, that is true. They are.”

“I didn’t know something like this would happen—your ancestors must really have, well…”

Syphir walked up, beaming. “Look at this!” he said, clapping Frent on the back. “A whole new canvas! You can paint on it a glorious mansion of your own invention.”

“Well,” said a man’s voice nearby. Everybody turned towards the sound. It was Geoffrey Thunder’s estate manager. “Sir, I beg leave to inform you that you have no money.”

“What?” whimpered Frent.

“Well, yesterday I informed your father that practically every interest this estate has had suffered several catastrophes of a nominally natural nature.”

“What?” said Frent and Jasinta simultaneously.

“And now, behold this destruction. Still, something of value may be salvaged from it. Of course it could. Oh, but there is also the matter of the bank. Nobody knows what happened but your bank has both failed and turned into a tea shop. It almost sounds as if most of its assets simply disappeared.”

“Incredible!” cried Syphir.

“Which,” said the man, “brings us to the final point. The Thunderer crops have been leveled, the mines have vanished and imploded, and – oh yes – rumor has it that there is a large governmental scandal involving your family. Fortunately, that will probably be hushed up. Commoners are saying that your family has been controlling the monarch for ages. That’s all. I’d say some magician has cursed you, if you asked me professionally. I’m going back to Branwyn now. If you recover your fortune, you know I am willing to return to your service.” He bowed and walked off.

Frent began to laugh hysterically. Several servants looked over. Syphir pounded his back.

“I really didn’t want—” began Jasinta miserably.

“Well,” laughed Frent, “there it is! Cheerio! G’day!”

“The entirety of this situation has become currputed and too many people were punished.” Jasinta looked thoughtful. “When I first came to Burnthede, I broke several rules quite horribly, punishing your house, and they must be repaired. There is also the matter of Weytra. If I were given leave to center my operations from your estate, I could help rebuild it.”

“That is a very good idea,” said Syphir instantly. He switched to a loud, wheedling whisper in Frent’s ear. “And she can keep you all safe from the evil aunt; you’re certain to be in Aunt’s particular interest.”

“Well,” said Frent to Jasinta. “None of this was your fault, really. We should be the ones to deal with the consequences.”

Syphir was astounded.

Lady Erstella fervently continued Frent’s line of thought. “The house of Thunderer always was a disgrace, and we scraped in miserable profits and connections in horrible quantity. It is small wonder and right that something like this came of it. As for me, though, I would be extremely pleased if you stayed about no matter what follows, dear.”

“Of course you would!” exclaimed Syphir, recovering his senses. “So would tutor!”

“My name,” said the tutor, “is Mr. Petros.”

“Well, there.” Syphir grinned broadly. “It’s decided. Eh, Frent?”

“Well, I…”

“Good.” Syphir looked enormously pleased. “Now, I had better go home. But where will you all…? I have far too many sisters at home to offer you any guest-room.”

“Am I staying on the grounds?” Jasinta stretched her hands. “A great part of my effort in rebuilding would be spent for your servants, who may depend on this estate.”

“Well,” said Frent. “I suppose…”

“Of course you may stay on the grounds!” said Erstella. “And welcome!”

“And I may build myself a very small…?”

“Oh, naturally,” said Erstella.

“This may cause general grief later.” Jasinta turned towards the ruin and vanished. Suddenly, boards began shifting, stones and bricks tumbled over each other, and glass reassembled at select spots in the air. All the servants (including the ones that had been sleeping) turned from what they were doing and watched in amazed enjoyment. A foundation came together, walls came up, windows and doors were placed, balconies sprang outwards, paint spread, several chimneys were constructed, a roof was soon rushing forth from under them, and everywhere uncountable small changes were made. Across the grounds, paths and roads were smoothed and repaired, plants sprang up to more than their usual vigor, and in the distance an orchard that had been there the day before was remade.

“But this is wonderful,” cried Frent. Syphir collapsed beside him, unable to manage his exuberance. The tutor had fallen asleep where he sat.. Lady Erstella was smiling widely.

The reconstruction continued going expeditiously. The house and grounds were not nearly as elaborate as they had been, and they looked much more old-fashioned – indeed quite like they had nearly three hundred years ago – but they were somehow much nicer. Several new structures with indeterminate uses were springing up, and as a final astonishment, Jasinta’s entire ship glided down into the lawn, a large bird fluttering around it, and quickly morphed into a quaint little group of buildings with a sparkling fountain in their midst. By this fountain Jasinta appeared, and the first rays of sunrise appeared with her. Great was the applause, and greater still were the many three cheers, when those rays fell upon the last small adjustment of the manor, and the estate was rebuilt.

Nearby.

Dawn revealed someone else on that lawn, now uncloaked by darkness, yet not seen by any of those he was watching. He was a figure of indeterminate age, and the way he stood he could have been any passer-by who happened to see a house being repaired by magic. Yet there was something in his pale face, just visible in the early light, something in his keen eyes, glinting with a light seemingly all their own, and something in his right hand, upon which was set a silver ring with a large, dark stone. There was something still more in the black robe he wore and the orange pendant about his neck. He bent down and grasped a thick walking stick with his ringed hand.

“Do you think I’m a threat to you?” he said quietly.

A vaguely defined shade appeared in the air, shifting the leaves in the forest. “Do you know who I am?”

“You should know who I am, Weytra.”

Weytra hesitated. “You are nobody. I don’t know why—”

“I do know why. Despite the baseness of your nature, your magic is purer than mine, and you fear that.”

“You should tremble before me. I will conquer this world.”

“And then all the others. Yes, I know.”

“Who do you think you are, talking to me? I will destroy you if you do not leave this place.”

“Of course,” said the man, “you could. But none of this concerns me; we’re talking about my daughter.”

Weytra let out a long breath, and she fell to the ground. “Jasinta.”

“Very good. Do not move against her – not yet.” He bent and picked up a fistful of dirt. “Strange that I should fear this. There is something in this earth that is not right. I wonder if your war will improve it – because if it doesn’t, perhaps its just as well your ambition reaches beyond this world. Perhaps one of us will survive.”

He walked away, and Weytra’s face as she stared after him was livid, but something like fear flickered for a brief moment in her eyes as she vanished into the air.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Family Heirloom Challenge: "The Red and the Wave" -- by Joseph Leskey (Part 1)


The Red and the Wave

by Joseph Leskey

The light of a small fire shone through the darkness to light two figures, one an old man, sitting slouched in an armchair, and the other a young girl, seated beside him with her head bowed. The man breathed shallowly, and the fire quivered with each weakening breath.

“Grandfather?” said the girl.

The old man stirred. “Jasinta. Some things go too far to – to bear it.” He closed his hand shakily. “The sea is calm today.”

The girl raised her head, and her eyes shimmered in the firelight. “Salva says the sea is sad for you.”

The old man laughed tiredly. “I would she was right, but only your mother was acquainted with the deep.”

“Will she come back first, or will you?”

“I cannot tell where our fate lies, if indeed it continues. Our power is diminished and decayed; we must be shattered so the mallet can survive. I can no longer keep this world even from bondage. Soon, this burden will be yours.”

“You said they must be punished.” The girl’s voice wavered.

“And so they must be. Match their glory with your obscurity, and bring them to shame. Their water is like sand to you, and thus it will parch their throats. The might of their hand rejoin with the frailty of all we have, and let them collapse. Oh, yes, Jasi, Keep this doom always against the house of the red and the wave.” A wind blew, gentle and brief. The fire flickered and grew stronger.

“Grandfather?” the girl wept. “It couldn’t…Salva? Salva!”

Footsteps pounded outside but faded and ceased. The room brightened, and rage and grief pierced every corner of the room in a multitude of beastly and ethereal voices that now only Jasinta could hear.

Fourteen years later. Star Garden, Thunderer Estate.

“No, no, no, no,” said Fernt Thunderer IX. “Oh, no, no, no.” He used a lace handkerchief to wipe an expensive crumb from his pedigreed mouth. “No, no. When I stand to inherit, I’m sure I’ll behave as I always have. A luncheon at noon, tea at four, dinner whenever. Some hunting, a rose or two in the garden. Yes—” He took a sip of wine, swallowed, and again wiped his mouth. “Yes, I’m sure there will be little change.”

His grandmother, Erstella, and his tutor exchanged a significant glance, but Fernt didn’t notice. He sliced half a biscuit into two smaller portions.

Syphir Fite, a great chum of considerably less means, popped a whole biscuit in his mouth and said, “As for me, I have little chance of inheriting even a small estate. I am remarkably well balanced in my tones and hues, and that is the only virtue to recommend me. Anyway, next week, was it, Ninth?”

“Was what?”

“The day you ‘stand to inherit.’” Syphir pushed aside his food, leaned back against a tree, and swung his feet around and up onto the table. The tutor and servants all kept a horrified silence.

“Here, preposterous fellow! You are joking, I vow.”

“No, I’ve never been more in earnest. I truly can’t place the date. Next month, perhaps it was.”

Fernt set his glass down. “My dear Fite, it is tomorrow.”

“Ha! There. I wonder what made the old boy give up his estate. Can’t be more than forty-seven at the most, I’d say. Wad of resin?”

“No, thank you. And father says he wants a quieter life. Nothing wrong with that.”

Fite shrugged and popped something into his mouth. “Nothing wrong about it for you, at any rate. I suppose you’ll forget the great chums of your youth?”

“I’d rather hope I shouldn’t. The idea of it.” Fernt ate a tender sliver of chicken. “Excellent fowl. Morris, notify the cook that this bird is truly marvelous.”

“Yes, my lord.” Morris straightened his aching back.

“You’re too kind, IX.” Syphir strained for his glass and, his endeavor sucessful, fell back with a huff. “You know, I really don’t believe it.”

“Don’t believe what?”

“Just a few miles away, a tidal wave has destroyed a whole village today, and here we are! Life in all its perfections. I’m glad I don’t have my money in the railway.”

“The railway? What of it?”

“Only that the blessed thing was uprooted and destroyed for miles, engines and cars too.”

“Impossible! You don’t say!”

“What’s this? Do you have an interest in the railway?”

“Father’s put an odd pound in it – I’m sure he has. I’m fluttered.”

The manor on the pond, Thunderer estate.

“I’ve been a poor parent, Lorry.” The honorable Geoffrey F. Thunderer XIV stared out an enormous window at the garden, where his son gesticulated foolishly.

The cat to whom he spoke yawned.

“I’m doing all this at your advice, you know. When he touches the great memorandum of his ancestors, then he will know where we stand, and it will not be foolishness backing his superiority.”

The cat licked a delicate curtain and then bit it. And bit it again.

“I, Lorry, must disappear. I know why my father took that ship. It was a voyage that was meant to be his last. Man ought not to trifle…in anything. Anything at all.”

The cat turned from the curtain, blinked, and mrrowed loudly.

“Exactly, Lorry, exactly.” The man stared at the windowsill for a few moments. “I hate Burnthede.”

The garden.

“I say, is it going to rain?” Syphir looked at the sky and laughed. “Look at the absolute speed of those clouds there.”

“Don’t be absurd. It couldn’t rain. Not in a hundred years, at least. Darling Gran, is something wrong?”

“Nothing, Frent.” She exchanged an exasperated look with his tutor. The tutor took a nonchalant bite of kidney as the clouds covered the sun.

Frent stared at them for a moment. “Say there, Morris, do your duty to king and country and have these utensils and edible things put wherever you types put them. There’s a fellow! Shall we retire early?”

“We might.” Syphir righted himself and stretched. “I don’t fancy getting too wet. A weak constitution can be ruined in a little rain. My sister could tell you that any time of the day.”

A torrential splash of rain fell on the scene, and with it came an equally powerful gust of wind. The table fell over and Frent with it. Syphir jumped to his feet. “We must stay calm! Are we all here? To the house, quickly.”

An unearthly glow sprang up some distance away, and soon after thunder cracked like an ominous whip. A second bolt of lightning exploded a nearer tree, sending it up in evident flames and smoke.

“Run! Run, I say! Flee!” Frent pounded his feet against the ground faster than he thought possible. Syphir was soon a short distance ahead of him. The tutor and grandmother strove along bravely at a measured gait. Then the earth shook with incredible vigor, and all around structures fractured. A chunk of the manor calmly broke right off and fell to the ground with a phenomenally unimpressive boom. Then the earth shook again and rented a small chasm directly before Frent. His momentum only allowed him a moment of terror before he was forced to leap over it, stumbling on the other side. Syphir had fallen, and moaned even louder than the wind.

“I’m done for,” he cried. “This is the end!”

A panicked Frent dived over him and went sprawling.

Suddenly, Syphir stopped moaning, and managed to say just as there was a lull in the wind, “Who for the sake of all the dragons in Burnthede are you?”

Frent turned around and beheld a young women in crisp brown attire reminiscent of a military uniform, which was complemented by a somewhat vigilant bearing. She stared at the both of them, water pouring off her very soggy hat.

The tutor and Frent’s grandmother, having navigated the trench, stopped, panting, beside her. The rain swirled into their faces.

“Why have we stopped running?!” yelled Frent with feeling. “Dear Gran, you must not catch your death!” A flash of lightning sent him flying forward with all speed again. The rain grew still more torrential, until it was an opaque flood of water whirling in the air. Frent and Syphir collided into a wall of the manor house at roughly the same time. As soon as they stopped running, their boots sank six inches into the mud.

“Help!” yelled Frent. “Somebody save me! Help, I say! I’m drowning – I can’t get out!”

“Don’t panic, dear, dear fellow! The quicksand is yet quite weak.” Syphir yanked a boot out and fell on his back. “Ah, I’ve been killed! Cause of death: natural.” He closed his eyes. Water flooded into his nose and open mouth.

“Syphir! Dear chum!” Frent struggled against the mud, successfully solidifying his trap and leaning against the wall in despair. But suddenly there was a shout and a legion of butlers crowded the scene, holding sturdy Burnthede umbrellas.

“There, there, young sir,” said Frent’s own particular butler. He was a very small man, but he had a firm hold on an unnervingly large umbrella.

“Ah, Drir!” And that was all Frent could say, as he become consumed with manfully containing his emotions.

Drir patted him firmly on the back and enlisted his fellow butler, a man named Hyke, more commonly known as “that absolute specimen of a fellow,” to fetch Frent from his doom, which the man did obligingly.

The eight other butlers extracted Syphir from the ground, his drenched head lolling in such a way as to flawlessly display his acute pallor. The butlers began a long procession back to the front door.

Entrance hall, the manor on the pond.

“I am as well as may be expected,” said Frent virtuously, with a small sniffle. “I beg you would tend to my dear friend, sir, for he is, I fear, quite faint.”

“Indeed?” said the physician with a chuckle, turning to the young man who lay on a table, his face like a muddy and soaked incarnation of death. “I prescribe rest, and I feel you both will be back on your chairs in hardly any time at all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must examine the state of Lady Thunderer.”

“Bless my life,” cried Frent, rising onto one slightly plump elbow, “I had forgotten. Dear Gran has just survived a nasty head cold. Doctor, be certain to inspect her lungs. Quickly, man.”

“Yes, quite.” The physician backed out of the room. A loud snort of laughter sounded just as he closed the door and all went silent.

Frent looked surprised. “I say, did the man just laugh?”

The line of apparently impassive butlers against the opposite wall made no move to answer.

“Frent, old friend,” said Syphir weakly.

“Syphir, you live!” Frent rolled to a seated position on his couch.

Syphir coughed feebly. “For now, old friend. I think…” He breathed a shallow, urgent breath, and panted a little. “I think I’m growing stronger.” Tangible doubt was fixed on his words.

“No, no, no. Of course you are growing stronger.”

“Come closer, friend,” Syphir laughed quietly, “you are many miles away.”

The butlers appeared even more impassive as Frent stumbled from his couch and rushed anxiously to Syphir’s side.

“We were good comrades, eh?” Syphir’s eyes moved feverishly, half shut.

“The best, dear fellow. The very best.”

“Would you do me something, XI?”

“Anything, Syph, anything.”

Syphir breathed rapidly for a moment before taking a deep breath and settling. “Has – has she come in yet?”

“Who?”

Syphir’s eyes popped open for a brief second, before they closed and he became even more like death. “The one…in the rain.”

“Oh, quite. No. We’ve lost her, rather. An army of domestics out looking for her.”

“I must join them.” Syphir made to rise, but Frent, much alarmed, pressed him back down. Syphir gave a little cry and closed his eyes.

“Nonsense, Syphir. Of course they’ll find her.”

“Would you do something for me, Frent?” he replied dreamily.

“Of course, of course.”

“If—” Syphir swallowed. “When they find her, would you – would you…” his voice trailed off and he exhaled.

“Syphir! Quick, some—”

Syphir’s limp hand reached out and touched his arm. “Would you tell her that I was…heroic. How I almost saved you…how I…” His breathing became regular and his arm dropped.

“No! Syphir!” Frent reached out to shake him, but then stopped. “Oh, he’s sleeps.”

The butlers clamped their jaws grimly and tried discretely to not look at the scene.

At that precise moment, Frent heard the front door swing open and he heard a strange voice which he thought must belong to the young woman say, “Are you sure I may enter? I have no wish…”

“Of course,” replied the rather cross household tailor, “who gives a care to what happens around here? Get in and stay in. There’s my advice.” The door slammed shut and myriad footsteps approached the room. Syphir became utterly still. The door swung open and three dutiful members of the household escorted the woman inside. Frent rose grandly and bowed. “My lady. I welcome you to my father’s house of Thunderer. Pary, be seated next to the fire here. Terribly sorry about the weather. Usually mild this time of year. Please, think nothing of the fabric.”

The woman crossed the room and sat in the chair. “Who is that on the table, just there?” she asked after a moment’s awkward silence.

Frent was amazed at his fair fortune in this excellent opportunity. As was Sylphir, if the way his breathing altered was any accurate indicator. Frent cleared his throat richly. “This is the most excellent fellow in all the world and a very dear chap. Poor brave soul. I’m told he almost saved my life, but he was just recently brought down very ill in a veritable mudslide.”

The woman stared, before looking down at her hand and clenching it. “I am sorry for it.”

“Return that reticule!” cried Syphir with a sudden wildness. “I say, stop there, thief!” He swung a fist flimsily. “There, there, dear lady. All in…” His voice lapsed.

To Frent’s horror, a butler quickly drew out a handkerchief and hiccuped.

Frent glared at him. “Fie, for shame! One should never do so with a lady present. I crave your indulgence in this matter, madam. Poor Fite. In a delirium, I think.”

“A cough is really of no consequence.” The young woman in a preoccupied sort of way.

Frent was dumbfounded. Any decent young lady should have been shocked and disgusted by such a display from one little more than a manservant. He fell silent.

It took quite a long moment of silence before the housekeeper arrived. She looked doubtfully at the young woman.

“What would one call my lady?” she asked uncertainly.

The young woman spent several moments staring at her before she said, “My name is Jasinta.”

The housekeeper didn’t look gratified. “Well, you had better come with me.”

Jasinta rose, and the housekeeper showed her through the door, maintaining some distance between their respective persons.

When they were both gone, Frent turned back to Sylphir and was delighted to see that his eyes were open. “Ah, Syphir, you are better, I trust?”

“Did you note,” said Syphir, the strength of his voice much increased, “that this lady was a very handsome one?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Frent in mystified tones. “She wore a hat, you know.”

“Yes. Was her name mentioned in discourse, by chance?”

“Yes, of course it was.”

“Let’s hear it, then.” Syphir stopped breathing and inclined his ear.

“Well now. Jascintha, I think it was.”

“Jasinta,” breathed Syphir.

“That’s not – it does seem more like it, rather.”

“Why did they put me on a table, Ninth?”

Frent pondered this for a moment. “Do you know, I haven’t the foggiest. I’m quite worn; I think I’m for a restful night. I beg you to excuse me.”

“Of course, of course,” said Syphir absently.

11:40 at night. One of fourteen hallways, the manor on the pond.

The former and incognito Lady Nutberry, whose wealth and eminence had been brought low by her now imprisoned husband’s unfortunate tendency to speculate, shuffled up the Thunderer hallway, carrying an impressive stack of bedclothes. Her thoughts were on the main in some way related to the practical application of stoicism. Accordingly, she was much alarmed when she thought she heard a human sniffle.

“What’s this?” (For she had developed a strong habit of talking to herself in learning the ways of Zeno and his followers.) “I didn’t think anybody was sick.” She stopped walking and listened very hard indeed. And there! Another sniffle. From the door just ahead to the right, she thought. A guest room, and not the best of them. She crept forward, wondering how much sympathy was desirable in a stoic proper.

But there it was: an unmistakable sob – a frustrated one. Lady Nutberry widened her eyes at the violation of her dearly held philosophy. But then her eyes started to water a bit due to her great natural tenderness.

Lady Nutberry pondered for a few moments. A young lady in tears and not a young lady she had ever heard cry before. There was a sense of loss, it seemed, in the sound, but also something deeper that was beyond Lady Nutberry’s power to place.

“Poor dear,” she whispered. She watched in horror as her own compassionate hand reached towards the door. Yes, she had been brought up in a family of nine children, and five of their number melancholy in temperament, and all her cousins frequently in despair; her experience in these matters was very great, but should she knock? Her nature urged her to do it, but propriety and solid Burnthede sense prevailed against the notion. At long last, she thought seriously against it, and turned to leave, with a compassionate sniff of her own.

Inside the room, Jasinta turned back to the window, relieved and deep in thought. She shakily took the windowsill and looked out over the grounds. The storm ceased.

Late morning. The breakfast hall, the manor on the pond.

The honorable Geoffrey F. Thunderer XIV laid down his newspaper, in his haste nearly upsetting his ceremonial cup of tea.

“What?” he demanded.

A man framed in the doorway fingered the pair of gloves he held in his hand and pressed some papers more firmly into his side with his arm. “Sorry to interrupt your breakfast, sir, but the state of your accounts demands it.”

“The state of my – what are you babbling about, man?”

“Just this. I have received reports from the Northbound Railway Company and from the Tunless National Housing Company and from the Central Burn—well, in short, sir, from all your several financial interests.”

“Go on, sir.”

He pulled out a sheet of paper. “‘Dear sir…et cetera et cetera…We, the select committee of finance at the Northbound Railway Company, beg leave to inform you concerning certain unfortunate events that have unfolded, not of an unnatural nature or of those contrived by man, but as violent as they are common.’” He paused.

Geoffrey Thunderer paled. “Well?”

“I’m afraid this missive is of similar meaning to the others. It goes on to say that the company is bankrupt and all shares are lost indefinitely, with no pending reimbursement.”

“Impossible. How?”

“That is not the worst of it, sir. You had a considerable sum in all of these companies and they were yielding very lucratively. Unfortunately, any one of them failing would be a blow to your coffers, sir.”

“Bother them all,” growled Geoffrey.

“Compounded, the blow is tenfold. I have drawn some preliminary calculations and I fear the net loss to the estate numbers in the many thousands.”

“What—?”

“Possibly some millions.”

“Millions? That’s absurd.”

The other man swallowed.

“Well. Am I penniless and a pauper now, is that it?”

“Not quite a pauper, sir. With certain small economies, your finances may recover quite reasonably in five or six years.”

“Discharge my staff, you mean?”

“Not all of them, sir. I have taken the liberty of preparing myself and my various effects for immediate departure, for I constitute an annual expense of an exorbitant nature.”

“What? You are staying here, man. I’d rather have you around than exotic pears. Ah, yes, and on that topic, today I no longer have a say in exotic pears, for my son is inheriting and he very dearly loves exotic pears.” Geoffrey leaned back with thoughtful nobility.

“I had wondered when we might come to that subject, sir.”

“I had wholly and comprehensively forgotten until just now, I must admit.” Geoffrey continued looking thoughtful and waved the other man to a chair. The said other man sat and joined him in his thoughtfulness.

Afternoon. The breakfast hall, the manor on the pond.

Drir, particular butler to Frent Thunder IX, entered the room cheerfully, looking briefly at the two men sitting on opposite sides of the breakfast table, each with crossed legs and a thoughtful countenance gazing at the wall about the doorway.

“Sir,” said the butler.

Geoffrey spent quite a while focusing on him, before raising his eyebrows interrogatively.

“Shall I wake Master Frent for the ceremony?”

“Oh, quite. Ha ha ha.” Geoffrey coughed. “Yes, do. And have the domestics congregate.”

The chambers of Frent Thunderer, the manor.

“What utter bliss!” cried Frent as Drir grimly wrestled him into a cravet. “I, a great lord and possessor of a fair and goodly estate. What bliss!”

Drir roughly straightened Frent’s coat, and Frent finally fell silent, gazing at the effect he produced in the mirror.

“Do I look well?”

“Yes, sir, I think so.”

“Where is that excellent fellow Syphir?”

“His sisters came to fetch him by carriage this early morning.”

“Ah, what a pity. Still ill, then?”

“His sisters thought so.”

“I hope he’ll recover.”

“The doctor thought so.”

“Ah, good. I am ready; let us go down.” He departed the room with ceremony.

One of two Great Halls, the manor on the pond.

When Frent arrived downstairs at least two minutes later, it was to a room crowded with bowing and bobbing servants. His father stood at the other side of the room with Frent’s grandmother at his right and the tutor at his left. The sun shone through the stained glass windows behind them majestically. Frent stepped forward.

“My son,” said Geoffrey, “Frent Thunderer IX, last and only heir of my house, I do name you the master of this estate and the possessor thereof. Red is our house for the blood of our ancestors as it spilled for their own greed, and like a wave did those forefathers surge upon opposing forces with gluttonous strength and false bravery.” He thrust forward a lengthy roll of legal paper.

Frent took it and held it limply, looking puzzled. “Usually the red and the wave sounds a little more glorious than that.”

Geoffrey laughed. “I have no more to do with this house, and I will degrade it as I please.” He cleared his throat. “Leave us alone.” The servants, after the wisest among them deciphered that he was talking to them, dispersed rapidly into other rooms and vanished from sight and hearing.

“Was that the fullness of the ceremony?” said Frent, not a little disappointed. “Is there not to be a feast of olives and the finest meat of Kels? And several colonial dancers playing lutes and…”

“You can have all of that if you like. I am leaving instantly.”

“Perhaps that’s just as well,” said Frent as bitingly as he was able, “since you so ostensibly have no thought for your son.”

Something darkened in Geoffrey’s eyes, and he turned away. Immediately there was a terrible din and an enormous pendulum clock leaped toward him. Frent watched in fascinated disbelief and horror as his father turned and punched it, somehow splitting it into myriad bits that flew about the room. He then turned back at Frent and terrible was his face as he raised a hand at him.

“I say there, Pater!” said Frent.

A streak of gray tore across the room and solidly grasped Geoffrey’s leg in a tiny, ferocious maw. Geoffrey looked down in horror.

“Lorry,” he breathed, “I must go.” He turned and walked out the door toward a waiting carriage. His cat trotted after him.

“I am confused dreadfully,” said Frent.

“That is what happens to our family,” said his grandmother. “We hold a great power and makes slaves of ourselves through it.”

“What’s that?” inquired Syphir, popping in through a door Frent didn’t know existed. Frent jumped, tripped, and crashed his head against an umbrella stand.

Evening. The sun parlor, the manor on the pond.

When he came to some time later, it was to several indecipherable faces swimming in his vision and a harsh, annoying voice repeating, “Give the man some air! A little air, I say.”

“Yes, I beg,” agreed Frent before again falling into darkness.

His second revival went much better and occurred shortly thereafter. He had been placed on a table and the doctor was nearby laughing solidly.

“Ho ho ho, my boy,” he said. “Ho ho ho!”

“Kindly do not laugh, sir,” murmured Frent. “I am an injured man.”

“Now you see how it feels,” said Syphir cheerfully. “All charm departs, and remain only the bleakest and cruelest of images in the mind to represent this unhallowed world.”

“You survived, I take it,” said Frent as the doctor helped his limp body into a seated position.

“I did. Survived and recovered in a single lonely night. It put a little character into my heart. I vow it did.”

The doctor made his way to the opposite wall and started helping himself to small amounts of brandy between guffaws.

“I am now the lord of the estate,” said Frent when he remembered the fact.

“Oh, excellent! Top quality, old thing. Any money to spare yet?”

“Oh, absolute loads, I imagine.” Frent sprang up and began pacing, though his head throbbed more than he cared for. “Did you see the way Father raced off? Bit of a shock, really.”

“Yea, for all the world like a gentleman with bad debt, leaping clock and all.”

“Bad debt!” said Frent, paling. “’Tis false fancy, man, I’m rich! Say there, did you see the clock – not a trick of the light, then?”

“Far from, I should say! Upwards like a…great goblins, is that my Aunt Eldritch peeking in through that window?”

Frent looked. He saw no one. “I had no idea you had an Aunt Eldritch.”

“I don’t and I doubt if I ever did,” said Syphir. “However, the countenance of the apparition demanded such a nomenclature.”

“Did it so? What say you, doctor?”

The doctor had sunk against the wall in a solid snooze. Frent looked uneasily at the window and saw a glint of gold – no, of golden monocle. Beyond that he saw just the faintest outline of a wizened old man seeming to glare at him. No, definitely glaring, and definitely an old man. Frent’s jaw went slack in horror. He knew in that moment that he could have claimed on oath that the man was his perfectly nonexistent second cousin Ertle Pigheart.

“That’s disgusting,” he said as the vision faded, “my throat constricts at the thought.”

“What’s that, Ninth?”

“Pigheart! The horror of the association strikes me dumb and powerless. No civilized man should think of such a thing.”

“I beg, sir, that you would make yourself quite clear, for I fear you have called me pigheart and named me as such a person as might emphasize my own qualities as being those of a terrible or yet shocking associate.”

“Nay, sir. I spoke not of you, but of an apparition that I just – aaaaaaaaah!” Frent sprang towards where the door normally was, having seen something beyond any description of terror. The door had vanished, and the room filled with shadows. There was a soft tap at one of the windows.

“What is the meaning of this?” cried Syphir with all the affronted dignity he could muster.

“Drir!” yelled Frent.

Drir came, seeming to burst through the wall before standing tall and formal and saying, “You called, sir?”

“Look at this! Look out those windows! Quickly, man! Quick!”

Drir bent impressively and gazed out a window before remarking, “Ah, yes.”

“Well?”

“I saw my dear Uncle Jesse, sir.”

“And do you have any such relative?”

“No, sir, I cannot recall that I do.”

“So you see how it is.”

“Yes, sir, if I might make so bold, it is simply a side effect of an imbalance in magic. It will right itself shortly.”

A bony fist slammed against another window and slid painfully out of sight.

Suddenly, Frent’s tutor burst through the wall in a bit of a rage. “What’s all this?”

“Magic, sir,” said Drir.

“Nonsense,” said Frent. “What rubbish is this? If there was magic in our family, I think I would have known it. It is a joke, sirs, and poorly played.”

“Shut your mouth,” said the tutor, not unkindly.

Frent did not take it well. “What did you say, sir?”

“I need to listen.”

“Why, sir?”

“Because, sir, I am your instructor and therefore wise in these matters, sir.”

“Ah, yes. Beg your pardon, sir.”

“And it is freely granted, sir.” The tutor drew in a breath. “Now, there is most certainly magic in your family, and your father did not do the thing properly at all.” An enormously rugged and lordly knight twirled his fine mustachios outside before bursting in a cloud of wasps the color of blood. “For some reason, your father told me to explain things to you – because I am your family’s wizard, I suppose – here’s the explanation: Your ancestor gained a great power in 1236 during the Eastern War, purloined from peasants or some such nonsense, I’ve heard. End of story. Done.”

“A great power?” said Frent. “Astonishing. You’re the family wizard? I am astonished.”

A door opened and a little-known manservant bowed his way in. “Good evening, sir. There is a fairly pugnacious robber near the western entrance.”

 Frent sprang up indignantly. “Robbers, indeed!” he exclaimed. “I’ll see them settled.” He dived to a concealed cupboard behind a couch and drew forth several hunting rifles, passing each of them to Drir.

A better-known manservant burst into the room. “Murder!” he cried. “Murder of terrible degree. We’re all being slaughtered!” They all rushed back the way he had come, where faint cries and solid thumps could be heard and then a great riotous cheer.

The scene they came upon was an interesting one. There was a ring of servants about the room, with Frent’s grandmother at one end, hand stretched out like an orator from a bygone age. Still nearer the middle of the room was nothing visible at first, but further inspection and a better vantage point soon revealed a sturdy footman brawling with a strange and unkempt man who had a knife.

“Cease this at once!” said Frent richly. “Are these not my lands? Foot, cast off thy assailant. Come, man, with speed!”

Foot, with truly laudable effort, raised himself up and the second belligerent with him, and cast the latter off, and great was his fall.

The servants cheered in wild approval.

“Aw, easy does, cove,” the apparent burglar rubbed his leg gingerly. “You’ve done and given me a bruise and battering and all. What’s in it for you, I asks? And I don’t know! Here’s me, a respectable bur—”

“Bite thy tongue, fellow,” cried Frent with ardor, “or I’ll have my man strike it for thee!” He pointed to an ambulatory stack of enormous hunting rifles that was Drir. Drir at that moment accepted yet another rifle from the gardener, who passed it over to him with great enthusiasm and a wink.

Frent adjusted his lapels. “Well, sir, speak.”

The man looked puzzled. “I’d say you’ve spoke pretty harsh to me. But I lets it slide. I reckons that is how I survives this life. Slide and let slide. We’re all slidin’ the same way. ’Cept you get the burial and we all gets the Kesley.”

“He’s clearly mad,” stated Frent with classical authority. “Well, speak, man, what were you after? Fetch the constabulary, boots, see how he takes that.”

“I wasn’t after nothing in particular, and I ain’t no canny thief either. I’ve always hoped to pop in here’bouts, and with the old boy gone, I says, ‘Well, bless’d soul, better now than never,’ so in myself comes without a by-your-leave. Worked fair decent too, ’til I were jumped by savages and what do you like. And here’s me with news you might like to hear. I saw another thief, I reckon, better slicked than myself and all, and that clever dog fell from the roof in the form of an eagle if I was ter be boiled!”

“Where did he go?” Frent demanded.

“Ha! Weren’t no he.”

“All right, then. What did she go?”

“What’s the information worth, when we comes close by it? All the sames, since I’m a dootful citizen of her majesty the queen, may her eyebrows endure ’til she again plucks ’em, I’ll tell you where the reprobate headed after. Down the road, ’twas, as per the natural and right. By the by, she said you should follow her to a well.”

The tutor was off in no time, calling loudly for a cab. He turned around at the door and yelled, “Master Frent, you must come.”

Frent, a bit rumpled at being called ‘master’ at this time of life, nevertheless came with some pomp to the doorway. Syphir sprang to his side.

“I know in my heart it was Jasinta,” he said reverently.

“Well, so she said,” stated the intruder.

The tutor called loudly for a cab a second time, an effort that was incidentally rewarded as two horses yanked a golden carriage around the building with none other than Frent’s grandmother holding the reigns. Frent was so shocked and ashamed that he utterly forgot his presumed lordly manner and had to be forced, silent and witless, into the carriage, before the party started off with all speed and the tutor bellowing, “To the well!”

The end of the first avenue, Fanny’s Square upon the Bones, Branwyn suburbs.

Geoffrey F. Thunderer stood near a tall tree in the suburbs of the great city Branwyn, the bustling and busy center of Burnthede. Lorry had a firm paw splayed against his lapel and was upside down, gazing at the great Pillar of Burnthede in the distance. Geoffrey laughed and stroked the cat’s nose, and was immediately latched onto by unrelenting teeth. A hansom came into view and Geoffrey, having no hands left at his disposal, shouted, “Oi!”

The cab stopped and the driver looked most perturbed. “Sir?”

Geoffrey crossed over to him. “I—”

“Begging your pardon, not seeming to be rude, is that a cat?”

“Indeed, it is, sir. A fine little chap called Lorry.”

Lorry finally released his finger, which was surprisingly unmarked.

“And, craving your indulgence,” continued the driver, “did I hear some chappie over near your direction cry ‘oi’ or was…”

“I did so. But now, if you should direct your cab to the most desperate and lowly place in her majesty's Burnthede, I should be much obliged.” Geoffrey jumped lightly into the cab.

“It’s not a sight I would wish for your eyes, sir,” observed the cabby. “But I do as my passengers please. Walk on!” The horses obeyed and the man continued, “Aye, many’s the time I’ve juggled and walked tightropes and all.”

“Just drive, if you please, good fellow.”

“Just so, sir.”

The beginning of the third avenue, Fanny’s Square upon the Bones.

“Gran has a taken a wrong turn,” yelled Frent, jerking out of sleep and venturing a look outside a window. “This is the city.”

“The suburbs, dear fellow,” said Syphir, who was quite at his leisure and looking more comfortable every passing minute. “I have here several young cherries. Do you want one?”

“No, thank you,” said Frent gloomily. “I want to see that well.”

“I could handle a cherry, sir,” said the tutor. “Cherries are ever my greatest temptation and affliction, and I don’t like to be deficit for long.”

“I imagine I could spare one.” Syphir passed him seven.

The coach went nearer the town, and the streets became narrower, the buildings taller and drearier, and everything darker.

“Oh, deplorable part of town!” cried Frent, putting a handkerchief to his nose.

“These are the merest outskirts,” declared Syphir. “I live near here.”

“What!” cried Frent. “Impossible!”

“Not at all! I was bred in the gloom, yet I bring sunshine wherever I walk, anytime I wish to bring it.”

Just then, the carriage stopped. The tutor took possession of Frent’s window and used it with great pallor of face. “This is not desirable,” he stated, stumbling toward door. “An ambush, I think. Get to the floor.” He came crashing down, slipping on Syphir’s shoe.

“We must save grandmother!” whimpered Frent. “She has a quarter inch always., but it only has two bullets. Why are we being ambushed, anyway?”

“Give ’em a bloody salt, lads,” cried a nearby voice. “Halt! Who’s that old lady up there, a-sleeping on her conker? She has a b’eautful pea-blaster, ’pon my several oaths.” There was an ear-splitting blast and the immediate smell of smoke. Frent paled.

“Here—!” cried somebody else, just as something crashed into the roof. There were several shots and a horrible metallic scraping, followed by the cries of men and a roar like thunder. All went silent and the carriage jiggled. Suddenly, there was another shot, and something thudded heavily against the side of the carriage. There was no more sound. The three men looked at each other with ashen faces.

“So much for Burnthede courage,” said Syphir weakly. “Look at us. Will you look at the sopping lot of us?”

The tutor pushed past them, rather red in the face, and tried the handle of the door. “It won’t open. Frent, try the other.” Frent did and it opened right in the face of a police inspector. Frent closed it again. “The law’s out there.”

“Of course—” began the others. “Oh,” they finished.

Somebody knocked on the door. Frent opened it again.

“Well,” said the inspector, “my humble gratitude. A spot of trouble here?” Behind him, two heavily cloaked figures were sprawled against a house, smoke rising from around them.

“Rather,” said the tutor, pushing past Frent. “We were ambushed!”

The inspector smiled. “Fine day for it. Why don’t the lot of you step down and introduce yourselves properly. Interesting blighters, I can tell. My name is Inspector Rigglesford, and you’re not like to meet a more understanding and kindly soul in all the third. Sector, that is, if you take my meaning.”

They all dismounted and introduced themselves formally, looking around. It was a blackened and shocking scene. A third person was lying on the road a little ways ahead at the end of a trail of soot.

The inspector began walking around the carriage. “Let’s have a look back here. All in a day’s work.” He went around the carriage with the tutor, Frent, and Syphir all following him. Many more members of the assailing party were revealed as they rounded the corner.

“Well, this is flustering,” Rigglesford announced. Syphir danced around Rigglesford and gasped, falling to his knees and looking quite ill. They rest of the group followed. Sitting against the carriage was the woman they had met in the sudden rainstorm, quite pale and apparently passed out. Nearby, a small fire was burning, apparently fueled by her erstwhile hat.

“I say!” said Frent. “It’s her. I think she’s been shot. Look, blood!” His head felt a bit queer.

Syphir fell further to the ground in acute distress. The inspector produced a small case. “Who was she?” He said gravely.

“I don’t know – did you say…?”

The inspector walked forward and knelt by her, retrieving a quantity of bandages from his case and a bottle of some sparkling green liquid. By the time he had finished, the street had grown quite a bit darker.

“Well,” he said, “she has a chance, anyway. Not like to bleed out. Now, I wonder…”

Jasinta suddenly awoke. “I am perfectly well,” she said, and she tried to rise.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but I have many years of experience in these matters, and in my professional opinion, you are not perfectly well, ma’am.” The inspector tugged at his collar. “In fact, you can count yourself rather lucky.” He stood up. “Now, I was just saying, you should be taken to a great doctor I know who practices here.”

Jasinta breathed carefully and winced. “I don’t require any doctors.” She tried to rise again but only set off several weak coughs, and she fell back.

“Careful there, miss,” said the inspector, “don’t go a-banging your head if it can be helped. If you won’t see any doctors, than what shall we do? Do you have family nearby, yes?”

Jasinta again tried to rise, and this time, as the inspector grimaced and gesticulated (and finally offered his hand to help), she managed to push herself up against the carriage.

“Whyyyyyy—?” moaned the inspector. “You might start bleeding again.”

Jasinta pressed herself closer to the carriage dizzily. “I might.”

The tutor stepped forward with many a bow. “I have some small skill in the art of healing. As the case is, I have on my person two beneficial healing potions.”

The police inspector looked chagrined. “I like to think you could have mentioned that earlier.”

“Well, what can one do?” said the tutor philosophically, drawing forth two vials. He gave them to Jasinta. She looked at them blankly, before she smiled at the tutor and drank them both. At that moment, Syphir sprang up and Frent’s grandmother, jerking awake, sprang down.

“Well, what is all—?” the latter began. “Oh. I thought I saw somebody falling from the sky. Good evening – Jasinta, I think?”

“Yes. Good evening.”

Syphir glided toward Jasinta. “Ah, madam!” He had adopted the most atrocious accent. “If you were to assure me of your well-being and comfort?”

“I am well and moderately comfortable.”

“Joy springs like a river from my heart.”

“That’s a medical malady, that is,” said the inspector, shaking a pencil. He looked around at the scattered hooded folks. “Now, what’s all this? Oh, never mind, don’t tell me. I see it all clearly. You are on some sort of quest – expedition of sorts – you are riding in your carriage; the carriage is ambushed. Supernatural aid comes falling from the sky – that’s you, miss. Ah, yes, quite clear now. All in a day’s…I have in my mind that I haven’t heard the end of this. Well, you’d better get on with your expedition.”

Frent finally found his self-possession and voice. “How did you know we were on one?”

“Heh. Move along.” He snapped his fingers in what was possibly the best and loudest snap ever heard in that quarter of the suburbs and the fallen ambush party became individually bound in red glows. Their arms snapped behind them.

“Good day, madam, madam, sir, sir, and sir.” Inspector Rigglesford tipped his hat and vanished, his apparent prisoners with him.

“Hm,” pouted Frent immediately, letting out a great breath of relief.

Jasinta fell into Erstella, who quickly caught her and helped her to the carriage, but Jasinta recovered and slipped away from it. “We can’t ride to the well.” She was breathing heavily.

“What is this nonsense?” asked Frent. “Whoever heard of not being able to ride? And why are you here, anyway?”

“I had to come and save you,” groaned Jasinta. “It’s generally not wise to attack me, as you can see. But I only meant to be shot once.”

“You really ought to sit down,” said Frent’s grandmother.

Jasinta shook her head. “We need to move along.”

“What shall we do with the carriage if…” began Frent.

The horses whinnied and turned around, and they trotted back homewards with the carriage in tow.

“Now,” said Jasinta, “we can walk.” She began and the others quickly followed her. Frent’s face grew long.

“I never walk,” he said.

Syphir yawned airily. “I could walk miles any day. I perceive you are an enchantress of unmatched strength, miss.”

 Jasinta nodded. “Yes.”

“Yet, you are not, I think, from Burnthede.”

“True, I am not.”

“You also dislike the practice of the noble sport of shooting, I perceive.”

“Very much.”

“As do I. The more I think about it, the less I can suffer the horrible art.”

Frent blinked. “My dear fellow, you are ever eager to rifle at the—”

“Sir, pray realize that I may gradually and wisely change my mind.”

Evening. Gills Boulevard, Park Circa Sum, Branwyn.

The deep parts of Branwyn were horribly dark. A thick fog rolled swirled about on the ground, and Lorry hissed at it. People pushed past energetically, as if hoping to escape as soon as possible. Lorry hissed at them too.

“I feel quite the same, old fellow,” murmured Geoffrey Thunderer. “There’s a nasty stale magic about here, or I’m a rodent.” Lorry looked at him with new interest. “How do people see in this?” He pressed on and turned a corner into a narrow street. There was an orange, flickering ambiance here, and shifty-looking folks slipped along in the shadows. There were several beggars huddled behind this traffic. One man held up a hand as Geoffrey walked slowly along.

“I say there, gov. Stop a moment, will yer?”

“Gladly, good sir.” Geoffrey turned aside.

The fellow looked up. He was an old fellow, and he possessed quite a kind smile. “To business, sir. You observe here two hats – fine hats once upon a time, but now average or dilapidated hats. This one is my hat. This one is also my hat. But this latter hat I keep for my sister. Sometimes, gentlemen such as yourself walk down here and cast a copper or a little Sally in one or two of these hats, and then I thank them with graces and airs and continue living.” He blinked expectantly and coughed with many a gasp and much wheezing.

Geoffrey drew forth copious monies and split them somewhat evenly between the two hats. The other man appeared to be delighted. “There a pretty thing to shine in your eye! I could set up as a pawnbroker with this and to spare, if I live cheap.”

Geoffrey raised his eyebrows. “Can you really?”

“Oh, yes, of course, if I’m shrewd. I am shrewd, but you, I perceive, sir, if you don’t mind me saying, are not shrewd. Gents like you don’t belong down here, I’m thinking. And now, since you’ve been so kind, I’ll inform you to sommat. I ain’t got a sister, and I never has one that I know of which, and at the end of the day, which is coming here quite shortly, I take her hat and I take to mingling until all that is in her hat is in my hat and then I take that hat and there’s my bread and flagon.”

“I see,” said Geoffrey.

“Thought you might likes to know, but you’d best not linger about here. A sight and a half past sundown. I suggest you go up there and see a bit of sunshine again. Cheer your spirits. I thank ye, sir.” He looked down and seemed to merge with the shadows behind him.

Geoffrey petted Lorry, who looked at him pensively. “We have a deal of work ahead of us, L.” The cat mewed.