Chapter 2. 'Intrigue'
As they rode the Daemonslayers and Hawker all kept a sharp eye on the forest but saw nothing more threatening than the occasional deer disappearing at their passing amid the thick undergrowth. Travelling at a fast canter with the two nobles ensuring the Prince stayed in his saddle, they covered the five miles in good time and soon the city of Aldoc, clustered around the base of its name-sake castle, came into view.
With Aldoc now in sight Hawker galloped ahead to a guard house in the city wall where he demanded a mounted escort to clear their way through the bustling streets and for a messenger to be sent ahead to the castle to summon the wizard of the Royal Court. The escort turned out to be unnecessary; at the sight of the Daemonslayers the townspeople fled the path of their own accord.
Aldoc, a long established town was in fact so old it had once been a part of the Old Empire. Since then almost the entire city had been razed by a great earthquake then rebuilt, so much of the city stood upon its own ruins. Whilst the great castle, towering above the cluttered buildings on its own outcrop of volcanic rock, had not fallen victim to the earth’s shivering. It had been built upon and extended greatly from its humble beginnings as a Duke’s Keep and now was a place truly fit for royal rumps to rest. Unfortunately, the astronomical cost of building the castle had been drawn from public coffers leading the rest of Gerhan into destitution so now it lay rotting in disrepair. The old king’s refusal to have anything to do with their neighbouring kingdom of Brae to the south and west and Sartyne to the east (and certainly to have no truck with the Empire on Gerhan’s northern border!) had not helped matters. The cheap slums outside the city walls stood testament to the steady collapse of the feudal system leading to an influx to the capital of dispossessed country folk believing here they would find a better life, then finding this belief to be badly misplaced. Within the crumbling walls the older city, better built in better times, was populated by quaint white and black-beamed buildings that crowded in close above narrow, winding cobbled streets. Many of them were also at quaint angles thanks to subsidence of their not entirely stable foundations due to another set of recent tremors.
Like any other city, the streets were busy with people, most of them vendors closing down their shops and stalls for the night (with tales of demons and dire beasts abroad no one would be found open past nightfall). All quickly scurried from the path of the Prince and his strange escort and before they knew it the Daemonslayers found they were passing through the castle’s outer gates.
The court wizard, already waiting outside in the main courtyard, was a mysteriously robed figure, their head completely hidden by a cowl and their arms folded into deep midnight blue-purple sleeves with not an inch of flesh visible. It was not possible to ascertain the wizards’s form or even gender just by looking at them as the lumps and bumps defined by the rune-embroidered cloth were giving nothing away. It came as a surprise when the wizard stepped forward at their approach and threw back their heavy cowl.
“A dakron!” Soul said in surprise. Dakrons, a dragon-like humanoid race were one of the most rarely-seen of Caevalonia’s numerous half-beast peoples. In fact, the only two she had ever met were Blackjack’s associates Hawkwind the Master Poisoner and Spur, a haughty alchemist. Much like dragons themselves, dakrons could be hugely varied in appearance although their coloration was invariably based in hues of blues or purples.
“And a female at that. I must say the people of Gerhan are becoming quite cosmopolitan.” Blackjack’s sardonic remark was just loud enough for only Soul and Shade to hear. His eyes lingered on the wizard for a second or so more before he made a visual sweep of the courtyard; its great cobbled expanse was empty save for bored-looking guards (now taking an interest in the strange visitors posted here and there) and the wizard’s entourage.
Hawker dismounted at the same time the wizard strode forward. She nodded at the Daemonslayers as they followed suit with the huntsman, “I am Erile, wizard to the Royal Court of Gerhan. What has happened to our prince?”
“The runner I sent did not tell you?” asked Hawker, looking displeased.
“He was cut by the blade of a shadow rider - they’re a type of demon-” began Soul helpfully.
“Yes, yes I know what a shadow rider is!” replied Erile, irritably waving a dismissive hand. She inspected the prince, slumped semi-conscious in the saddle, “You two.” She snapped, pointed to Hawker and Blackjack who were stood closest, “There is no time to lose. Lay Prince Irik on the ground here: I will cauterise the wound now.” She missed the harsh look Blackjack cast her at being ordered about as she reached into her robes and produced a jewel-studded knife. With quick, precise movements she cut away the makeshift bandages and tourniquet to reveal the blackened wound. “Cloth” she demanded, holding out a hand. One of her servants quickly passed her a pristine white cloth that had been dipped in a bowl of boiling water infused with fragrant herbs. The entourage stood as close as they dared to watch the goings on (fearing the wizard’s rebuke should they venture too close). Some watched silently with grim faces while others openly lamented the fate of their prince. The wizard herself remained completely impassive, if a little irritable, as she worked. Once the foul pus and ill-smelling humour had been cleaned and the gash started to bleed profusely again Erile held her hands palms down over the insult, her bony, clawed fingers outstretched with her thumbs touching as she murmured the words of an arcane chant. Glaring white fire, bright as burning magnesium, shone from her palms. The onlookers held their collective breath as she lowered her hands, pressing down against the ruined skin. Some turned their heads at the scent of burning flesh and Irik let out a low moan. Then it was over.
The Prince’s eyes flickered open and stared around blearily before focussing on his rescuers. He managed a smile as memory returned, “You saved my life. I must at least offer you my hospitality.”
“Your Highness, I hardly think that’s-” began a rotund official standing amid the entourage, but Irik shushed him with a weak hand gesture.
“Treat them as my guests, Seneschal. But now” he said with a great sigh, “I must rest.”
Erile rose with a majestic sweep of her robes, “Take Prince Irik to his chambers, and send the Court Physician to dress the wound.”
As Irik was taken away upon a cushioned stretcher, the red-faced man he had addressed as the Seneshcal turned to the Daemonslayers, looking somewhat ruffled. Diminutive in height, he still managed to talk down his nose at them, “Our Crown Prince has bid you welcome to Castle Aldoc as his guests.”
“That’s not really neces-” started Shade but, not wanting to miss this kind of an opportunity Soul quickly got her words in first.
“Of course! We would be both honoured and delighted to accept his Highness’s generous invitation.” She said with a happy smile.
“Would we?” Growled Blackjack in her ear.
“Yes. We would,” she replied in a tone that allowed no arguments. She looked expectantly to her lover for backup, “Shade?”
He shrugged, “Sure.”
“Lame.” Blackjack mouthed at him over Soul’s shoulder.
“Ah… good.” said the Seneschal in his nasal tones. He motioned for two of the remaining servants from the entourage to come over, “Show our guests to the stables where they can keep their … mounts.” He said, looking past them to their steeds and really not knowing what word to apply to them. ‘Menagerie’ would have been a good one but would not have been in keeping with his courtly manners, “And then take them to the guest quarters in the south wing.” Then he turned back to address the ‘guests’. “Do make yourselves comfortable. There is a banquet tonight beginning at sixth bell. I will see to it that extra places are set for you.” He sniffed.
Apparently this marked the end of the conversation as the Seneschal turned smartly on the heel of his polished shoe and strode back into the castle followed by the last of the servants like ducklings behind their particularly haughty mother.
Shade turned to Hawker, “We can hunt down those last few shadow riders in the morning.”
Hawker nodded, “Aye. Your help would be much appreciated. Anything to strike at the rot that pervades Gerhan’s heart.”
“I'm really not comfortable about this.” Shade squirmed in his seat, tugging at the high, tight collar of the lavishly embroidered tunic he had been given to wear.
With a grin Blackjack leaned past Soul who was sat between them, “What, Shade? You don't like being given a posh room, posh food and getting to dine with royalty?” there was a scornful note in his voice but it was possible he was directing it at the authority figures who were their hosts, rather than at Shade.
“Naw. It's these poncy clothes” he tugged at his collar again, “and look!” he complained, pulling a face and pointing to the left side of his face then to his ear, “They wanted me to take my nose chain out. And get this,” he twisted round in his seat to they could see his left ear more clearly, “They said a skull and crossbones was unbecoming. But if I left the piercing out it'd heal up, so they gave me this pearl one instead. It's set in gold, for gods' sakes.” Shade had never liked gold jewellry, “I feel like such a fop,” he muttered sulkily.
“It's not that bad, hon. And that tunic looks good – it shows off your muscles but I can't even tell where your 'spare ribs' are” Soul said, patting her lover's arm. Her attempt at consolation did not sound entirely heartfelt though because she was rather too busy enjoying herself.
Soul had loved having the ladies in waiting fuss over her, doing her hair up in the quite frankly ridiculous beehive-type pile that was the current fashion in Gerhan's royal court. She thought it looked dumb, but had thoroughly enjoyed the attention.
Her ears had been something of an issue, with some of her would-be stylists wanting to cover them and others not. Eventually they had settled for leaving a gently curling lock of hair hanging down one on each side of her face, just covering the traegus and lobe of each ear. This left the long, gently pointed cartilage, so reminiscent of faery ears, showing and these had been decorated with crystal tear-drop earrings rather than her customary three plain gold hoops in each ear.
And then, of course, there was the dress. One of the older maidservants had almost suffered a heart attack upon first seeing Soul in her trousers, especially ones of such close-fitting stitched leather. Upon Soul's refusal to allow them to take the 'unladylike' item away, it was all the ladies in waiting could to do tidy them out of sight so they did not have to look upon the offending item. She had gone through about six different dresses, kindly loaned by one of the in-castle seamstresses, before deciding she liked the first one best anyway. She was also eternally grateful that corsets were not in fashion this season, unlike toward the north of the Empire, which was always several seasons ahead of its periphery.
Soul had also been offered the loan of some rather extravagant jewellery but had politely declined, much preferring to wear the simple pendant that was one of the very few items she had to remind her of her former life. Besides, her own necklace looked just perfect hanging temptingly just above the start of her cleavage, revealed by the low-cut, bead-sewn dress of a rich teal velvet that matched her almond-shaped eyes.
A great surprise had come when she stepped out of her room as the polite tinkling of the dinner bells sounded. Blackjack was standing at the bottom of the stairs at the end of the dead-end corridor in which the Daemonslayers' two rooms were located, nosing through the drawer of a marquetry table in case it happened to valuables. Forgetting about his rooting he watched her as she carefully negotiated the stairs in the satin slippers she had also been loaned. She had given him a resigned look and, awaited whatever cutting comment it was he was about to make.
Much to her surprise he had given her one of his rare, broad and genuine smile and said, “Lookin' good, Mech'. Don't be surprised if F'lair's reduced to a salivating idiot when he sees you.”
Soul was not too bothered by her boyfriend’s complaining: she thought he actually looked quite dashing in the lesser nobleman’s clothes he had been loaned. Although she did still prefer his usual darker, more rakish look, chimera leathers and spikes would have been considered too barbaric for dining at a royal banquet!
Speaking of barbaric, Soul stole a sidelong glance at Blackjack. Still sulking, Shade was looking in the same direction, “It’s all right for you, Black’ The tailors were probably too scared to ask you to change your clothing style!”
Dracosvulfs were, for fairly obvious reasons, nigh unheard of in Gerhan. In fact, the tailor who had been first through the door had blanched and would have turned tail had it not been for the press of the entourage following him. Blackjack had wondered what might have happened had he been in a more threatening position when they entered than cleaning under his toenails with the edge of a small exquisitely framed mirror that had been on the bedside table. After their initial surprise they had, in turn, all laughed politely at Blackjack’s smiled assurance that he was not about to eat them, and then become silent and pale when he added, under his breath but just loud enough for them to hear, that they all looked too scrawny for his taste.
Still, the servants had been given their orders and apparently they feared the wrath of their masters more than the obvious predator before them. All three Daemonslayers suspected that said orders had been that, under no uncertain terms, they had to be made presentable for the banquet. So, from some reserves of courage that the tailor did not even know he possessed, he managed to find the gall to ask with much wringing of hands, very politely, if Blackjack, just for this evening, would possibly consider wearing something else besides his travelling clothes. That was, if he did not object to the idea, of course.
Purely for his own amusement, Blackjack had just for a moment, fixed the tailor with a glare so terrible the colour instantly drained from the poor man’s face, before smiling amicably (not even showing his teeth!) and challenged the man to find something that fitted.
To even Blackjack’s surprise the servants produced several outfits that with a few alterations were wide enough at the chest to accommodate his wings and their accompanying muscles, whilst not having an enormous waist to match. Still, he steadfastly refused to wear any of the foppish 'fashionable' styles the courtier tried weakly to press upon him and finally agreed on a black doublet of some kind of twill and suede with plain trousers of matching material. Besides the necessary alterations for his wings and tail, the tailor also had to let out the calves and ankles of the pants as there was no way Blackjack could wear any of the shoes they had so the aim was to cover his 'unsightly' boots as much as possible. Yet somehow the three spikes and the jagged metal plates on each toecap did not upset the overall look.
Although vastly smartened up compared to his usual appearance, the overall effect was that Blackjack looked like a rich pirate rather than a fighter (something Soul was quick to comment on) but the attending tailor and servants agreed this was as good as they were going to get.
Watching Shade’s continued look of consternation, Blackjack sniggered at him them turned to start a conversation with the pallid and preoccupied-looking lady sitting next to him, hoping to get some amusement by seeing how long politeness could be maintained in the face of fear.
The banquet hall was a huge, airy expanse of a room whose roof was supported by six square pillars with paintings of previous rulers on each side. From the mosaic floor up to the level of the tall, narrow arched windows situated about halfway up the exterior walls were paintings depicting mostly hunting or battle scenes. Above this level the walls were a rich red, to go with the gilded plaster trimmings. The mosaic floor depicted a huge image of a shield flanked by a red peryton and white unicorn, both rampant: the coat of arms of Gerhan.
The long dining tables were arranged in a square-sided 'U' shape around the edges of the room, leaving a clear space in the middle for servants to serve and entertainers to entertain. The Royal Table, at the bottom (or top, if you did not want your head chopped off) end of the 'U' was positioned so that nobody could sit opposite the king, as no one was considered worthy of such a privilege.
Dish after extravagant dish, course after course rolled by and the Daemonslayers started finding it difficult to keep up with the feasting. In Soul’s case she was beginning to feel increasingly queasy and not just because of the corset crushing against her stomach and sides. Swan stuffed with duck stuffed with quails, stuffed peacock tongues, whole boars, sweetmeats and strange, glutinous soups and yet more stuffed… well, anything capable of being stuffed with something had, indeed, been stuffed with that something.
Not wanting to offend their royal hosts she and Shade had started off trying to sample everything, even the ‘delicacies’ she would not normally have touched with a barge pole. Shade, with his fairly simple tastes, had given up and had spent the last hour ‘contemplating’ the ‘quail-egg and fish poo’ (his closest guess) delicately folded and shaped pastry puff on his plate. So alone Soul had bravely attempted to withstand the gastronomic assault but now her resolve wavered and she was prepared to wave the white flag of burgeoning indigestion as she sat quietly envying Blackjack and wishing she had thought to employ his tactics.
Earlier during the feast the dracosvulf had waylaid an entire spit-roasted marsh boar, thereby successfully avoiding all the ‘poncy-****’ as he so delicately put it and now he was demolishing the roast surprisingly fast considering he was still missing several teeth. Although they were already re-growing his gums were still too tender for him to chew in the left side of his muzzle but he was making fair progress in spite of this.
Right now he was sinking his teeth into a juicy leg. The werewolf in Soul howled and slavered, wanting to join in but her suffering stomach astutely ignored the plaintive cry.
The noblewoman in the seat to his other side could only watch in fascinated horror, wondering if those teeth sank into human flesh the same way when Blackjack was not in ‘polite’ company. She was passing the time feverishly quaffing any wine to come within reach in a weak attempt to keep such imaginings at bay and nearly choked on a mouthful when Blackjack suddenly growled through the side of his mouth at a servant who foolishly attempted to remove the carcass.
Soul’s suffering was instantly renewed when the dessert course(s) arrived. There were sweetmeats, all manner of pastries glistening in syrups of all flavours, and converse to some deep-rooted expectation she could not identify, there were absolutely no chilled monkey-brains on offer. With a grand fanfare the centrepiece was wheeled in: a carriage led by six little white horses made entirely of sculpted sugar. The carriage itself was possibly a cake, but it was hard to tell as it was covered in lavishly sculpted icing. In the midst of the sugary flying buttresses and filigree there sat a gilded cage in which fluttered a pair of love birds, one blue and the other pink of the same delicately formed sugar as the horses.
As murmured speculation as to the nature of these flying fondant fancies rippled throughout the banquet hall Iance sat with an indulgent smile as he surveyed his wondering guests. He glanced at the Seneschal; his cue to stand, clap his hands and call authoritatively for silence from the chattering, braying nobility assembled. Once order was gained the king stood, opening his royal mouth to fill the obedient hush, “Our lords and ladies, friends, family, countrymen and guests alike,” with the last two words he looked sidelong at the Daemonslayers then more openly at the three other guests on the arm of the great table to his right who were dressed in the traditional garb of the kingdom next door, Brae. He went on, “We are pleased to see so many of you in attendance and in such good health for we have much to celebrate! First, we must welcome once more the trade delegation from Brae: may both our fair countries prosper through the alliance we have forged in our negotiations this day!” The members of the delegation smiled and nodded at the King appreciatively, “We hope you will enjoy our hospitality at least for a short while more.
“Secondly, and we are sure some of you may have noticed our more… colourful guests” All eyes fell on the Daemonslayers at the prompt. Shade smiled nervously, hating to be the centre of attention, Soul blushed and Blackjack actually stopped gnawing on a thighbone for a moment. Iance continued, still addressing the other banqueters “We are sure you are all aware of the near loss of my dear cousin, our beloved Prince Irik today at the hands of evil demons.” There were nods and sombre faces all around, “Well we have these three brave Daemonslayers from the distant east to thank for his rescue!” he turned to solely address the three, “You have our deepest, most sincere gratitude for so valiant a rescue,” he raised his glass.
Though the toast was hearty and obediently joined by the other guests, Soul noticed not all faces seemed to match the supposed gladness of the occasion. In fact, she was sure the fat Seneschal and the court wizard in particular were giving them dirty looks. There was even something about the king’s tone, as he spoke again once the polite glass-clinking was done, “If only our cousin were well enough to join us tonight.” He turned to Erile, sitting a couple of places to his left, “How fares the Crown Prince, Wizard?”
“He is recuperating in his chambers, Your Majesty. But the demon’s poison runs deep and I fear it will take time to heal.” the dakron’s voice was so quiet ears were forced to strain to hear. There were murmurs of sympathy but Iance quieted them with a placating gesture.
“Let us not talk of such sadness; Prince Irik is still alive, is he not? Now, if we might divert your attentions to this delectable dessert before us. Incidentally you have our own Wizard to thank for its delightful occupants- oh!” By some secret cue, the door to the birdcage flipped open and the sugared birds fluttered out, swooping and whirling above the powdered wigs and curled locks of the banqueters. The blue one soon alighted upon the king’s own plate but the pink one continued its chaotic flight.
Now quite drunk so no longer caring for her previous fearful inhibition and without anyone to gossip to at her other side, the noblewoman beside Blackjack leant over and in a conspiratorial stage-whisper said “You know, the young King has not yet taken a wife! Perhaps this is his choosing.”
Wondering why (and not just a little suspicious) of her reason for deciding to impart this information, Blackjack was almost ready to bat the magically animated creature away with the thighbone still in his grasp when it flew too close. It alighted briefly on Soul’s plate and for a second three collective breaths were held. But then it flew on and they all let out a collective sigh of relief when it landed on the dish of a pretty blonde lady opposite who giggled and simpered with delight.
“And what’s wrong with me, I ask?” muttered the drunken noblewoman. Blackjack considered giving her the list he had compiled so far, but his lost teeth were a sore reminder of what happened the last time he’d spoken too honestly to a woman. (ed. – see ‘Unforgiven’)
The King wore an unreadable smile that did not seem to reach his steely blue eyes , “Just a little harmless fun,” he said with a gracious nod to the ‘lucky’ lady, “Now, on with dessert!”
Shade felt a bit greedy being the only one of the three to be having dessert (though to be fair he had skipped the remaining savoury courses) but that did nought to prevent him and his sweet tooth from stuffing in several portions. He stopped a couple of times to offer Soul some but she did not seem too interested. In fact, she was starting to look a little green at the gills. Blackjack, never a dessert man, was picking the final shreds of flesh from the boar carcass. Not for the first time Shade wondered where the cursed dragon found the space to pack so much away!
After the majority of the mountainous bird-cake had been devoured a bell rang and suddenly the great doors opened and two armoured guards stopped through, joining the pair already stationed either side of the doorway. The hall fell quiet as an important-looking page, decked out in the golden colours of Iance’s flag, stepped between them.
“We present for Your Majesty’s fair and just judgement Jun of Alwer, of the usename Stinge.” None of the guests, save the Daemonslayers and the Brae crowd appeared at all surprised by this turn of events as they sat in expectant silence awaiting the page’s further words, “He stands accused of conspiring to undermine the people’s confidence in Your Majesty, aligning and sympathising with the foul Empire. In short: treason and the subversion of the good people of Gerhan.”
There were gasps and angry comments as a middle-aged man, a farm worker judging by what was left of his clothing, was dragged in chains before the King by another two burly guards. These wore a slightly different uniform consisting of a lot more black. An intelligent guess would label them as belonging to the royal dungeon attaché.
The man stood, shaking, before the assemblage. Iance narrowed his eyes as the charges were read out, his youthful face barely showing any lines as he did so. He opened his royal mouth to speak. All fell silent. “For high treason against both the Crown and the Country, you will be beheaded at dawn!”
Soul shared a glance with Shade, “But there wasn't even any evidence!” she exclaimed quietly.
“Furthermore, so that all will be aware of the severity of this crime, his family, who have no doubt been infected by his poisonous ideas, will be put to death first. The Treasoner's eyelids are to be cut out so that he must watch, enabling him to be truly sorry for his sins, allowing his god to have mercy on his soul.”
Soul suddenly felt like her dinner no longer wanted to remain in her stomach, “That's rotten!” she gasped quietly, horrified. Blackjack was not giving anything away about how he felt, but a look at Shade indicated he was equally appalled.
“And to think they complained my piercings were barbari- Ow!” he murmured to her, speaking in the Kaborean dialect spoken by he and Blackjack and which she had been learning, to keep prying ears from the exchange. The 'ow' at the end came as something hard and sharp snapped against his calf. He leaned over and looked down in time to see the barbed end of a black tail snaking away. Looking up he caught Blackjack's warning glare that clearly said 'You want the king to take exception to us after that?'
Fortunately the Daemonslayers' exchange was lost to the general murmur that went round the crowd. A sudden clapping silenced this and, after a second's delay, (almost) everyone else joined in with the Seneschal’s applause.
After the applause died away the Seneschal, who had been looking at the Daemonslayers throughout, cleared his throat importantly and addressed them, his voice high and superior.
“I notice you did not join in with the rightful applause. Do you not agree that His Majesty’s judgement is just and fair?”
“Er…” began Soul but Blackjack subtly brought his heel down on her foot.
“Why, most assuredly we do,” he said, playing up his eastern accent and smiling a fanged smile no one could dare to doubt, “However, aware as you are that we come from a distant land, undeniably backward compared to your fair and civilised kingdom, you must understand that our customs do vary somewhat. In this instance: so grave a matter as insubordination met with so wise a judgement as Your Majesty’s” Blackjack spared a nod to the king, whose vanity was enjoying the feeding. Soul and Shade just stared at their friend wondering at his talent for making people accept complete and utter bull****, “in our land is met with stern faces and contemplative discussion of such wisdom.” He chuckled self-deprecatingly, “No doubt this must seem a terribly quaint custom to yourselves and we shall endeavour to act more appropriately to your much more advanced culture in future.”
The King continued to smile, even beam, at the flattery and had he been a bird would have been preening by now, “Ah. Fear not for this was indeed a matter where so sober a response was equally appropriate. You must speak more of these ‘quaint customs’ after dinner – I am sure the Seneschal could do with learning some.” There was polite, restrained laughter at the King’s little finishing joke. The Seneschal appeared suitably mollified by Blackjack’s response, but the wizard Erile continued to regard the Daemonslayers with a steely eye.
Dinner had finished an hour ago and the guests had migrated into the great hall for the liquor course like a herd of prattling, gossiping, and expensively attired sheep. Now most of the nobility had formed little islands of vapid conversation between which social butterflies flitted. Usually in these circumstances uncertain, less popular castaways milled about in the spaces between the groups, trying never to stay still in the same place long enough to make it obvious they were by themselves without a nucleus of aristocratic peers to call their own. On this occasion however they had found a life raft in the form of the little gatherings of nobility listening, rapt, to the tales of these strange foreigners from the east, enabling them to stand shoulder to shoulder with their popular peers and almost appear to be a part of ‘their’ group.
Finishing his story about the time the Daemonslayers had freed a town from the clutches of an evil, demon-thrall wizard, Shade signalled to a tray-bearing servant to bring another two brandies for him and Soul whilst the noblemen and their escorts bombarded him with questions. Preoccupied with guzzling sweet canapés from the tray held by a patient servant, Soul was surprised when she lifted her head and found herself confronted with a small group of… fluttering (this was the only word she could think of to describe them) courtly ladies.
They appeared to lose their nerve a little when Soul failed to greet their attention with much enthusiasm, although this was more to do with the mouthful she was working on than anything else, and she wondered to herself again at how timid the ladies in Gerhan were. They were young, possibly a year or two younger than Soul physically appeared to be. Then one of them plucked up the courage to speak.
“Th- They say you wear trousers and ride a gorrta!” After the false start she blurted the words out quickly then, without moving, somehow retreated back into the gaggle. Soul gave her a guarded look, then nodded reluctantly, still not having swallowed enough to clear her throat. She was half-expecting her admission to be rewarded with them bursting out laughing and make snide comments to one another, but to her amazement she saw a look of quiet awe in their lead powder and make-up caked faces.
“Doesn’t your husband object?”
“Oh, Shade’s not my husband.” Soul did not like the way they suddenly looked past her at him and started simpering so she quickly continued, sounding a bit haughtier, “Besides, hoops and bustles aren’t the best gear for riding and fighting demons in.”
“You fight them too! With a sword?” gasped one girl. There was admiration as well as shock in her voice. They were all staring at her agog. Soul wondered if these girls thought she just washed and cooked for the other two!
She smiled, “Well, yes. Although sometimes I’ve had to use my bare fists,” She had to bite her lip to stop from grinning as she watched their dainty jaws drop. No wonder Blackjack was having so much fun over there, being one to delight in provoking reactions as he did. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the group he was ‘educating’ on the ways of the east had drifted closer and she caught some of his words through the hubbub.
“-bludgeon each other to death with their fathers’ thighbones-”
She bit her lip again to suppress a laugh. Catching Shade’s eye, and seeing his tight-lipped expression she realised he was doing the same. As she returned her attention to the still wide-eyed ladies before her, the polite, musical tinkling of a bell cut through the noise. In its wake followed an expectant hush, except for,
“-to stop the skies falling on our heads.”
“Lords, Gentlemen and Ladies” announced the scratchy, nasal voice of the Seneshcal “Hi Royal Majesty King Iance is now retiring for the evening.” No one stayed up later than the king, in case questions of his majesty’s stamina arose, so this signalled bedtime for everyone. Accompanied by a pretentious fanfare the king swept out of the great hall, his entourage at his heels. After them the aristocracy filed out in no particular order and peeled off from the procession to head for their respective chambers. Shade and Soul found themselves being swept away by the flow.
Blackjack was held behind, caught exchanging final pleasantries with his ‘audience’ (who were being over-polite out of fear more than anything else) his amiable manner completely hiding the little daydreams he was entertaining about disembowelling these trumped-up monkeys - but only after tearing out their tongues with his bare claws to silence their tiresome wittering. At last they left and Blackjack found himself alone, save for the servants who were giving him as wide a berth as the extensive room allowed (so that was pretty wide, then). Apparently at random and with no obvious increase in the speed of their movements, they scattered like mice before a cat when he sauntered over to the trolley they were loading to pick over the canapé leftovers.
Not a big fan of sweet food, the dracosvulf was a little disappointed to see at first glance there were no savoury ones left so instead he considered which bottle of liquor he could take (whilst stuffing in a mouth full of canapés anyway). A quiet voice cut through his contemplation.
“You may not be aware, but it is considered… impolite to retire much later than His Majesty.” Chewing laboriously on something particularly sticky that was trying to cement his back teeth together and tugging on the tender new ones, Blackjack looked up to see the Court Wizard, Erile. The dakron had her hands hidden in the sleeves of the midnight blue robe that matched her shiny scales and her yellow eyes regarded him down her slender dragon-like snout.
Instantly disliking her tone of voice, Blackjack did not bother to clear his mouth before replying, “Don’t have that custom where I’m from. What’s your excuse?”
The wizard looked shocked by this facetious reply. As a dakron (even a female one) and therefore regarded as being a member of a species naturally skilled in magic she had been welcome to study her Art in the Empire and been ordained there. But afterwards Erile had turned her back on those constrained, human ways of magic coupled with the typical discrimination suffered by most non-human species within the Empire. She had come to the Independent Kingdom of Gerhan where an even greater superstition of magic-users than was rife in the Empire allowed her the ‘space’ (for few dared approach her) away from the interfering Council of Mages to study and increase her powers until they reached the extent whereby she was invited to become Court Wizard to King Randall III (Iance II’s predecessor): a great compliment to her Art considering she was not even human and, above this, a woman. Having enjoyed such a high-ranking position for so many years, she was not used to such impudence. Her sharp eyes narrowed, “You know, I don’t think I recall you mentioning exactly which part of our fair continent you hail from.”
“Eastern Kaborea: The Evermoors.” Sometimes the truth was more fun than a lie.
The wizard spluttered, “Preposterous! No one lives there” she snapped.
“No one civilized, anyway 'milady'” Blackjack smirked, adding the title just to be irksome. Then his eye caught a dish with something savoury on. He recognised the little pastry puffs as ones he had been eyeing earlier, but the waiters had apparently only been serving them to the delegation from Brae.
Following his line of sight, Erile hastily picked the dish up, “These are for the trade delegation only” she said quickly, the sharp tone of her voice forbidding argument but failing completely to bother Blackjack.
“They've gone to bed.” he said flatly, raising an eyebrow, “Are you going to chase them back here like a matron and make sure they clear their platter before they retire?”
“I might do.” Somehow she managed to keep a straight face whilst inwardly she could have slapped herself for coming out with a retort so ridiculously feeble. She tried to keep disdain in her eyes as she held the dracosvulf's stare, the red left and blue right eyes searing and freezing respectively. There was an intensity to his gaze that made her feel like her thoughts were being laid bare; a disquieting sensation for one as secretive as she. Realising her behaviour might garner suspicion she sighed inwardly, deciding that she'd already made a fool of herself so she might as well go the whole hog, so to speak. She half turned her body, holding the dish away from him, “Then again, perhaps I might want them.”
Blackjack settled into a relaxed stance, arms crossed and a half smile creasing the pale scars on his furless muzzle, “All of them? For a skinny chit of a dakron such as yourself?”
“Yes.” She said, voice terse as she fumed at her witless response. Erile felt flustered yet somehow flattered at the comparison to a youth; she was starting to guess why. 'You treacherous body' she hissed at her form in her mind. She had not met another dakron (let alone a male one) for almost decades, and it was just as long since she had met a member of any fellow dragonkin species. In fact, if it weren't for the fur and his canine aspect, then this dracosvulf would be very dragon-like (or dakron-like) indeed. She had already admitted to herself that he was not a bad specimen; even with that cote-hardie on, his muscles were barely disguised and the strong, hard line of his jaw, tousled hair and dark brows were appealing. It annoyed her that she realised only now that it was not just suspicion with which she had been staring at this foreigner throughout the evening.
His smile broadened and a glint of something other than amusement flashed in his eyes “Are you sure I can't tempt you to share, Erile?”
“Well, I...” she began then stopped, horrified that the consideration even entered her mind but she knew this was not the right time for such dalliances and quickly snapped “Of course I don't want to, you impudent rake!” She almost swore aloud in exasperation as she spotted her slip-up. She had meant to say 'cur', but some traitorous part of her mind had been thinking that those scars looked awfully rakish.
“'Impudent'? I'm sure it's not a part of your 'civilised' etiquette to call your Crown Prince’s guests names,” enjoying himself, Blackjack tried hard not to laugh at the effect he was having on this quite obviously repressed dragonkin.
Sliding her gleaming yellow eyes about the room to make sure no servants were close enough to hear, Erile hissed, “Etiquette is a human thing for human fools like the Seneschal!”
“I'm with you on that one.” Blackjack smirked. Then walked away, tossing a careless “Good night.” over his shoulder as he left the room. Although the seething wizard did not reply, he could feel her incensed stare boring into his back every step of the way.
“Mmm. The perfect end to a more-or-less perfect day,” Soul smiled, gazing dreamily into Shade’s eyes as her breathing and rapid heartbeat slowly returned to normal. Shade smiled his wholehearted agreement and held her closer to him, wrapping his muscular arms about her slender frame.
“Mind you, I’m surprised we managed after all that rich food,” she chuckled, propping herself up on one elbow, flicking her hair over her naked shoulder and idly tracing the arcane crawling runes tattooed around her lover’s left bicep. He contrived to look offended,
“‘Surprised’? You know full well I can always ‘manage’, miss.”
With a smile Soul playfully flicked the ring piercing the bridge of his nose. She was about to tease him further when a sharp tapping sounded at the window followed by Blackjack’s voice from outside, “Hsst, guys!”
“Shit.” Shade said quietly, leaping up and looking around for his clothes, “Uh… just a moment.” he called as he and Soul scrabbled to gather their garments, strewn across the room in the heat of their earlier passion.
Once at least vaguely decent, Shade pulled back the curtain and took the latch off the full-length balcony window. Blackjack stepped in, wings folded tightly to keep them out of the way. He took one look at them and the bedroom and rolled his eyes in an expression that said ‘you guys don’t waste any time, do you?’ He snorted, “I’m not ‘interrupting’ anything, am I? Because I’d hate to think I was, you know.”
“Yes but that's never bloody stopped you before, has it?” said Soul, annoyed, “What do you want Syrax?”
“An opinion” he replied, ignoring her sharp tone of voice and insouciant use of his true name.
“Fine. Yes, your bum does look big in that. Now go away.” She snapped flippantly. Blackjack just raised an eyebrow, looking at Shade from whom he expected to get at least a semi-sensible answer.
“An opinion on…?” Shade asked somewhat distractedly as he wandered about the chamber looking for his shirt, wondering where Soul had flung it after literally tearing it from his back.
Blackjack looked nonplussed by the lack of attention he was getting, “… On the castle populace in general, but ‘his majesty’ King Iance in particular.”
Somehow the hated tunic Shade had been loaned had found its way down the garderobe. Trying not to look too pleased he settled for just wearing the much plainer, less frilly under shirt “It did strike me as unnecessarily cruel… that punishment, I mean.”
Soul wholeheartedly agreed, “Yeah. ‘Kill his family and cut off his eyelids so he has to watch’ – what was all that about? And those snobs had the cheek to imply we were barbaric!”
“I’ve been around a long time and I can vouch that I have never heard of a king meet out such punishment for a crime for which there was no trial… Except for the raging lunatics who were so inbred they could have been their own parents, but that sort are not difficult to spot and Iance doesn’t seem to be one of them,” said Blackjack. Not actually looking at his companions as he spoke he wandered around the room, opening drawers and cupboards here and there and generally nosing about.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Soul followed his movements with her eyes, “And what? You think we should bust them out of the dungeon?”
The dracosvulf snorted explosively, barely keeping in a derisive laugh “Hardly. But it’s just one thing (and I hate to be so vague like this) contributing to the ‘feeling’ I’m getting that something is awry here. Another is the fact I’ve never heard of shadow riders this far west and especially not in such small groups.”
Shade had been rubbing at his right eye beneath the patch while Blackjack spoke, but stopped when a thought struck him “Remember that comment Hawker made about Gerhan being diseased or something?” he said, frowning.
Blackjack nodded, the movement making the straggly black strands of mane framing his face dance about. There was a dark look in his eyes as his quick mind ran through the possible implications of this: none of which were particularly good, “We can ask him what he meant when we hunt those last two ‘riders tomorrow.”
“I thought it strange that not everyone in Court seemed overjoyed at our rescuing Prince Irik,” said Soul bringing up a subject she had been musing about since the banquet.
No one had the chance to comment though as a soft but urgent knocking came at the door. They looked at each other, wondering if they had been talking loud enough to be heard by a listener at the door. Shade got off the bed and went over, “Who’s there?” he asked, hastily buttoning his shirt to hide his ribcage armour. From the corner of his eye he saw Soul and Blackjack as they stood, alert and ready for anything if necessary.
“Gilborn: Prince Irik’s manservant,” came a quiet and polite yet urgent voice.
With a glance at the others, Shade opened the door, “Yes?”
Stark against the dowdy grey-blue doublet and ho uniform of Irik’s servants, the boy’s pale face was clearly visible in the candle lit corridor. He looked nervous already, but then even more so as his eyes flicked from Soul to Blackjack over Shade’s shoulder. He unintentionally caught Blackjack’s hard, piercing stare and quickly returned his gaze to the human before him, “His- his Highness Prince Irik requests your company-”
“At this hour?” interrupted Soul, surprised.
“Uhm, yes. In the Bird Room. He has instructed me to lead you there, but has asked that we remain quiet as possible to avoid disturbing the sleeping guests.” The latter sentence sounded rather well rehearsed.
“Excuse us a moment.” Said Shade then, politely as shutting a door in someone’s face could be done, shut the door in the boy’s worried face. He looked questioningly at the others, “I don’t think I like the sound of this,” he said, switching to his native eastern dialect to prevent anyone ‘accidentally’ overhearing.
“You don’t want to go F’lair?” asked Blackjack.
Shade looked unhappy, “No. But then I don’t think it would be a wise career move to upset our hosts either.”
Soul just stood silently, looking from one to the other as they spoke. Although Shade was teaching her this dialect and her knowledge was far from complete, she was at least managing to pick up the gist of the exchange.
“Oh? And which two lycanthropes accepted the invite to stay here in the first place, I wonder? Could you please remind me?…” Soul did not need to know the language to recognise Blackjack being sarcastic.
Dropping back into Common Tongue, Shade turned to Soul, “C’mon Meccha. Let’s go see what he wants. Blackjack?” he looked at the dracosvulf enquiringly.
“We’re all invited, aren’t we?” Blackjack replied caustically as Shade opened the door again and nodded to Gilborn.
After bidding again that they move in silence, the servant Gilborn led them on a convoluted route through dimly lit corridors ‘off the beaten track’. Along the way Soul and Shade exchanged many glances, sharing an increasing distrust of these unusual circumstances. It did not take a mastermind to guess they were being kept off the castle’s major arteries to maintain an air of secrecy… or to ensure there were no witnesses.
Despite their misgivings the Daemonslayers arrived without incident at the ‘Bird Room’ which, after the servant motioned them inside, turned out to be located on the ground floor in the far wing of the castle. The grand, somewhat musty-smelling chamber would have been pleasantly spacious and airy were it not for the tall dark mahogany and glass cabinets that crowded the walls and formed dark shining islands in the middle of the room when there was no wall space left to cling to.
The contents of these cabinets marked the room as a taxidermist’s dream. Every available space was populated by birds of all shapes, sizes and species. So carefully were their stiff, dead bodies arranged that it seemed they had been frozen in a moment of time, their actions as well preserved as their slightly dusty feathers. Her hand clasped closely in Shade’s, Soul gave it a squeeze as she stared about, her gaze returned by the unblinking glass stare of myriad bright, dead eyes. To her the beautiful, often iridescent plumage looked sad and wrong displayed in such a cramped, affected parody of life.
“Aren’t these extinct?” Blackjack’s voice cut through the close silence of the avian mortuary, causing the manservant to stammer as he had just been drawing breath to announce the Daemonslayers’ arrival to the prince. He was looking at a long-necked and legged specimen, tall as a man, its plumage reflecting all colours of the spectrum. Weighed against this gaudy yet graceful display though were the sharp, tooth-like barbs lining its wickedly-hooked beak and the curved knives that were its talons.
A figure moved in one of a set of big leather armchairs before a great unlit fireplace at the far end of the room. “Why yes. What you see was the last Noble Razorbeak my uncle King Randall III caught, I believe,” spoke the figure in the armchair, each word carefully measured by his weak voice, like the steps of an exhausted man who knows he must yet reach his destination.
Shade and Soul sat down warily in two adjacent chairs. Blackjack looked at the remaining armchair, “I think I’ll stand. I wouldn’t wish to put holes in the upholstery,” he swished his tail so the obsidian-black spikes lining it and ending in the arrowhead-shaped barb caught the moonlight streaming through the window, illustrating his point.
Very reasonably for a Royal, the prince just shrugged, “As you wish: I did not ask you here to stand on ceremony.” He looked, and sounded, like a man on his deathbed. Although the shadow rider’s poison had been stopped, it was still present in his body and would take some time to leave. Irik’s brow glistened with sweat and even in the moonlight he looked extraordinarily pale; almost ashen enough to rival Shade’s complexion. Dark circles clung beneath his eyes and his hand shook visibly when he waved Gilborn away to close the door and wait outside before he began.
“I understand the circumstances of this audience may seem a little… unusual but I fear subtlety is vital given the current climate in Castle Aldoc” his voice was weak and speaking seemed exhausting for him. Even this sentence left him short of breath. Not sure where this was leading, the Daemonslayers waited for the Prince to continue.
“As newcomers to Gerhan, you may not be familiar with the… the feel, the vitality of our country. But you must believe me when I tell you something is truly rotten in this Kingdom,” he paused to rest again.
“Well actually, Bla-” Shade began but stopped when the barb of a sinuous black tail snapped warningly against his calf. He gave Blackjack a reproachful look returned by a quick scowl from the cursed dragon.
Irik did not seem to notice this altercation however, intent as he was on fighting his malady long enough to get across the message burning in his mind, “There are tales of demonic visitations throughout the Kingdom. There is unrest amid nature itself: the crops die and the animals turn upon each other. People are afraid.” Irik halted once more then continued, “And I fear I have deduced but one source for Gerhan’s sickness.” He spoke quietly, almost as if to himself.
“How long has this been going on for?” asked Shade, the leather creaking as he leaned forward in his seat, gazing intently at the Prince who stared without focus into the shadowy emptiness of the fireplace.
“Since I was but a boy of no more than ten winters.” He suddenly dropped his voice so that even his present company had to strain a little to hear his next words, “Since the birth of my cousin, the King.”
The Daemonslayers exchanged furtive glances and raised eyebrows: political intrigue was not their speciality. Shade chose his next words very carefully, “Your Highness. What, exactly, are you implying?”
“King Iance is a demon incarnate!” cried the prince. Then his eyes widened as he realised how loudly he had spoken. He also noticed the meaningfully quizzical looks this time. Much more quietly, not only due to his voice suddenly weakening once more, he went on to say, “You would understand my outburst if you had suffered my cousin’s evil for as long as I. He is a tyrant that must be stopped.”
Blackjack cleared his throat, his expression unreadable, “Forgive me if this might sound impertinent, Your Highness,” The smirk was there, but it was a smirk with an alibi that, when tried in court, would be judged ‘not guilty’ of being a smirk at all, “But could it not simply be that the King is just a cruel monarch. They do come along occasionally, you know.” Soul looked up at him sharply, surprised at this contradiction to his earlier misgivings, and a little worried that he might be antagonising royalty (i.e. someone with the authority to have them thrown in Castle Aldoc’s deepest, darkest oubliette and have the key fed to a griffin).
Their host stared for a second, just long enough for Soul to start wondering what the dungeons they were about to spend the rest of their lives in were like, but then Irik shook his head emphatically as his weakened state would allow, “No. I understand the reason for your remark but believe me, if Iance is not a demon himself, then he is indeed possessed by one! Only since his birth have things gone so amiss in Gerhan. Only since he came to rule have the fell beasts seeped through our fair borders. You are Daemonslayers, are you not? If you cannot save this land and purge its once-pure heart of this malediction, who can?”
“No pressure, eh?” Soul mouthed to Shade when Irik gazed once more into the empty fire.
“And you want us to do what?” asked Shade, “Lead a revolt? Dethrone your cousin?” He left unspoken the obvious, bloody suggestion that lingered at the forefront of all minds present.
“I would ask of you to stop him by whatever means necessary” though distinctly even more frail than before there was a dark, iron-hard note cold as murdering steel in those words. Irik suddenly started to cough: a rattling, hacking sound that made Soul wrinkle her nose in distaste. Wiping spittle mixed with blood from his dry lips, Irik finally raised the strength to use his voice again, “I can coerce you to do nothing for your hands are not under my command to force. The decision to act is yours though I will tell you now it is not just the safety of this Kingdom at stake. Do you think the delegation from Brae was asked here purely to discuss ‘trade’? Iance will cast his foul spell upon them, use them to usurp King Galenor and take Brae for his own. Soon he will have power enough to rival the Empire and we will all be doomed!” Again a racking cough ended the Prince’s dire proclamation. Soul and Shade exchanged a few quiet words during the fit. Only half listening to them, Blackjack stared at the huddled, shaking form of the Prince, wondering when, exactly, did the poison wielded by shadow riders have this effect after supposedly being stopped by magefire?
Finally the Prince raised his head, “I am spent.” He whispered, his voice painfully hoarse in his raw throat, “Gilborn will return you to your quarters. I pray you not only consider, but perhaps act on my words. I know of nowhere else to turn…”
Alone once more in Shade and Soul’s room, the Daemonslayers sat in contemplative silence, each waiting to see if one of the other two would be the first to voice their opinion. Shade was sat cross-legged on the bed beside Soul as she kicked her feet listlessly over its edge. Blackjack just sat on the floor, gazing out of the glass doors onto the balcony with an unfocussed but sober look in his eyes.
“Sounds like you might have been right in your suspicions, Black’,” Soul ventured, breaching the thoughtful quiet.
Blackjack’s eyes focussed, but remained fixed on the window as he nodded a little but did not reply aloud. Seeing Shade staring at the bedspread past his shins, idly picking at a loose thread, Soul gathered no immediate comment forthcoming from her lover either so she continued regardless “It kind of explains the rather… cool reception we got, too. So what do we do? If what Irik says is true, we can’t just run up and kill the-”
“Watch your words, Meccha.”
“Huh?” Soul looked at Blackjack, wondering what he was on about and feeling slightly offended by his suddenly sharp tone of voice.
His head still unmoving, Blackjack swivelled his eyes to look at the couple, gazing through the strands of his mane hanging in the way “The walls of castles tend to have ears,” he said then returned his stare to the window again, “As for what we should do: the most obvious answer is ‘nothing’.”
Soul raised her left eyebrow, distorting the tattoo-like mark over her eye, “And again: Huh?”
“It seems there is conspiracy afoot.” The dracosvulf turned his head to look at them this time.
“Please don’t make me say ‘huh’ any more.”
Blackjack rolled his eyes at her then looked back outside up into the sky at the distant silver moon Isel. He steepled his fingers and rested his chin, very lightly, against the tips of his obsidian claws, “(I’ll try to put this in nice, easy terms with no long words for you, shall I?) Prince. Irik. Is. Next. In. Line. For. The. Throne. Why do you think his full title is ‘Crown Prince’?”
He waited a little impatiently as this sank in, then continued quietly after Shade’s ‘Ah.’
“The King is perhaps, to a degree, cruel and insane… but that’s what you get with inbreds: it doesn’t automatically mean he’s a demon but it could lead people to claim he is possessed and the Great Unwashed tend to believe that sort of thing because humans are collectively stupid creatures. Conveniently for His Highness the Prince, some Daemonslayers happen to turn up. Now, wouldn’t it be handy if they were to believe the king possessed and subsequently see fit to rid fair Gerhan of this ‘demon blight’? And once the king is dead the new ruler (long live King Irik, incidentally) there will doubtless be a cry for justice against the assassins. And who will these scapegoats be, one wonders?” he finished, quiet words laced with sarcasm.
“No need for that tone of voice, Sy’,” Shade admonished, “That’s a good point though, I guess.” He looked thoughtful, uncertain as to what opinion he should form and troubled by the knowledge the wrong estimation could land them in serious trouble.
“But what about the other stuff he mentioned? Is it unrelated coincidence or what? (bearing in mind that you’re Mr IDon’tBelieveInCoincidence)” asked Soul, not entirely convinced by Blackjack’s sudden U-turn on his earlier misgivings.
Blackjack shrugged, “Until Iance was born Irik was in direct line for the throne: that’s enough to sour anyone’s view on things. Plus you have to bear in mind he was only ten winters at the time. Most of the humanoid races seem to see things through a rose-tinted window during childhood: as he grew from child to man perhaps he began to notice the things already there that, until now, he was sheltered from by youth’s fabled ‘innocence’.”
Soul noticed Shade was chewing his lip again and nudged him in the ribs. He stopped, looking a little bemused at her, then ventured “And Iance would be the perfect scapegoat for his woes as he came along at the wrong moment?”
“Precisely” Blackjack got up suddenly, rising to his feet with a single fluid motion he turned to face his friends, “Well I, for one, have no desire to be drawn into a royal murder conspiracy” he said, voice still hushed. He went over to the door then paused about to open it, his hand resting on the jamb, looking back over his shoulder. At his normal speaking volume he said, “I vote we hunt down those last two shadow riders then get out of here. See you in the morning”
“Food for thought” commented Shade gravely after the door clicked shut, leaving him and Soul to themselves once more.
End of Part 2
All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2004 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2004
Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.