Pomp and Perspicacity, Chapter 7 – Anubis, Femdom, Darkest Dungeon

“My Lady?” Nicolette called out, scrambling through the house. She entered Fanny’s room, still in her nightdress. “Fanny? What’s happened?!”

Fanny couldn’t stop whining, couldn’t stop awooing. It was embarrassing, and humiliating, but it was also inevitable, the very language of her frightened soul. She held John’s letter in trembling paws, her ears flat as she howled.

“Fanny, what’s-“

“AWOOOOOOO!” Fanny cried out, looking up at the ceiling with the same compulsion that a drunk would vomit. She whined, frantically pacing the room as if it were a prison. “AWOOOOOOO!”

“Fanny!” Nicolette cried, whining herself. “What’s happened?!”

“John! John is-“

“What? Is-is he dead?! John?! AWOOOOOO!” Nicolette cried, giving in to her own howl

“AWWOOOOO!”

“AWWWOOOOOO!”

Fanny shook herself free. “No, no! He’s trapped! They’ve got him surrounded!”

“Who?” Nicolette asked, seizing her mistress and holding her fast.

“The Ochre Hellebore, and a bunch of big-titted shortstacks, and old King Hank!” Nicolette cried. “He says there are thousands of them! AWOOOOOOO!”

“My Lady!” Nicolette admonished. “You are Lady Frances DeBoerg, the Iron Aunt. You-we- must get a handle on ourselves.”

She moved to slap her Mistress across the face, but her paw was quickly caught in the swift grip of the sand wolf dowager. Such a threat was all that was necessary to cause Fanny’s superhuman will to assert control over her intensely canine pieces. She took in a deep breath.

“You are right Nicolette,” she said, panting and sniffling. “You are right. This is no time to go to pieces. It…it is obvious what we must do: send for Colonel Travis, Nicolette, immediately.”

“Colonel Travis?”

“Yes. Tell him I need to see him at once, without delay,” Fanny replied. She straightened her dress, and folded the accursed letter. Swiftly she walked to her desk, and pulled out her quill and ink.

Nicolette bowed, “I’ll change, and depart. Will you be alright?”

Fanny nodded briskly. “I shall be fine, but haste is essential. I have…mastery over myself again. Fetch the Colonel, at once!”

Fanny returned to her writing. She put the cursed letter, which she had folded, beneath a napkin on her desk. It was fitting for so horrid a letter to consort and cavort with the hated napkins. She realized something was wrong when it came by rider and not by weird Anacletus phantasm. It had all manner of bad news. There was the business about Martin marrying Anna Woodeville, who had apparently recast herself as La Carconte, and then as La Creatura. That was ill enough news, but this business about the army of evil under the Ochre Hellebore was worse.

She had several reasons for not getting involved in the business at the Darkest Estate: firstly, there was the fact that she wished to stay away from the occult, and profane arts. Fanny was a creature of reason, of the world as a place where foolishness could be burned away by scrutiny and sense. Her long life had flirted with the dark arts in several places, and always she had resisted. At least, until recently. But the realm of Anacletus did not play by such rules, and she feared to enter it in the same way a desert mouse would not wish to enter the cracks in a glacier. It was a world all queer or alien, where she feared to be less than useless.

There was another reason, also, one which she had touched upon beforehand. Fanny had known that this adventure was John’s, and she feared that if she placed her heavy thumb (or…claw) upon the scale that it might unman him. And so she had let him go into danger, worried sick for him, and sent him her best agent to support him. But it had not been enough, and drastic measures were required now.

She sat at her desk, and picked up a large, featureless tome of moth-eaten pages. She opened them, turning to a page of strange runes, the script of a dead civilization. She ran her paw over a crude drawing, feeling the raised section where the dried blood used as ink had been applied to the crinkled page in ancient times. Archousa…

She looked, also, at the curious note from the Reverend Fairchild that she had received several weeks ago. It was an offer of a sale, with a plea that she would do a great charity and purchase a wondrous treasure. For the miners had found something beneath the earth, something which had done more damage to them than cave-ins or cruel nobles. Greed had corrupted the hearts of those who beheld it, and driven them mad with lust for what was found. In terror they had come to Reverend Fairchild, hoping to exorcise its wicked spirits. But the Reverend knew the spirits were within men, not the treasure, and he had wisely locked it away and out of sight. But fearful of the mayhem it had caused, the Reverend suggested selling the treasure to the worldly Lady DeBoerg. Fanny judged this as sensible, for such an artifact was far better in her hands than in the hands of another. It was his note upon the finding of the artifact which had led her to search the tome, to recall the old folk tale she had once heard from that strange Abbe who had tutored Anacletus and John. Like a desert mouse in a glacier, she had touched her paw pads to the frost.

Fanny looked back at the ancient texts, and looked over her notes from her translation. She had been hesitant to let her findings be known. In the wrong hands (which could arguably be considered the hands of her nephew), Archousa would be a weapon of terrible severity. She had planned to quietly purchase the Reverend Fairchild’s rare treasure, lock it away in a vault, and let Archousa lie dormant, but this news from John was so distressing that she decided to throw all such caution to the winds. This was war, and war meant doing reckless things with terrible consequences.

Yes, Archousa was the key. She would speak to Colonel Travis, then head to Loudon, and to the Archousa. But first, she needed to write to Rushworth Manor. She would need their help. And to Reverend Fairchild, also.

As she set her quill to parchment and began to scribble her standard salutations, she said a silent prayer, praying that she would be in time to aid John, and fearful that she would not

* * *

“Incoming!” The terrified leper screamed from the parapet above.

A flaming mass of dried bog and hardened shit exploded against the earth and stone walls of the Hamlet. John ducked, amazed by the resounding crash and rumble of the projectile. The cannons of the Ochre Hellebore’s armies were crude, but their shots rattled the fortifications. The Bounty Hunter Gerard who stood next to John, snorted.

“Amused, are you?” John asked.

Gerard’s response was a wry smile. He twirled his grappling hook and rope, looking out beyond the wall. Muskets fired and arrows flew, cannons roared, and the air was full of the smells of gunpowder and blood. The fighting had been going on for several hours, and though the forces of the Ochre Hellebore were numerous, they had not made any serious attempt at a breach yet.

“Purchase!” A voice called out from across the battlefield. It reverberated along the walls. “Purchase! I mean to treat with you.”

John poked his head above the wall, near one of the bubbling cauldrons along the parapets. Out before him was the vast multitude of freakish monstrosities and cutpurses, of fungi men and giants, of fishmen and crazed cultists. And at the back was the Ochre Hellebore himself, in his full regalia, his plump shortstack wife Lotte at his side. She yawned, and beckoned to a nearby fungoid to bring her a candied toad, which she munched as the Hellebore removed his ridiculous hat.

“Open the gates!” The ochre colored madman shouted. “And swear fealty to the True King.”

He pointed down the line of troops, at a ragged, decayed looking corpse. Even the most ardent of King Hank’s followers would be forced to admit that he had seen better days. He was wispy and half a skeleton, emaciated by the eating action of maggots and bacteria. He shuffled on his feet, staring off into space as very much a vacant creature. His arm, severed by Reynauld’s zealous accusation, had been reattached with metal staples.

“Your King is an undead zombie,” John shouted back. “No one will swear fealty to him.”

“Lies!” The Ochre Hellebore screamed. “And even if he was, it’s still an improvement.”

John heard an uncomfortably loud murmur of agreement from behind his own walls, and decided he would not win a debate on this point. “You will not bring your forces into this city, for we will not be at the mercy of brigands and monstrosities.”

This brought the defenders out of their rebellious fugue, and back to his side. Even if the Hellebore were being honest – which John was unclear on – he knew the mad swordsman was not in charge of himself. Bouvethoth, under Chao’s and locked in combat with Anacletus’ doppelgangers, was commanding him, and when the moment was right, he would assert his power.

“I want no bloodshed, Mister Purchase. You and I are reasonable men. Why don’t we meet on the field of honor?” The Ochre Hellebore asked.

John laughed. “I tell you what; let’s have a spelling contest instead,” he japed. The defenders laughed, as did some of the attackers. Even Lotte began to giggle.

Hearing the chuckles of his wife to his left, the Ochre Hellebore turned on her, wild-eyed. She covered her mouth and hiccupped, and looking chastened, shot John an angry look as she shook her ladle at him.

The Ochre Hellebore clenched his teeth. “Bah, you coward! Face me, man to man!” He shouted.

“I am not the owner of this Hamlet, I am it’s Steward, and it is not mine to give, even if I were stupid enough to agree to such an absurd idea,” John said. “My counter-proposal is this: take your King into the Weald, and establish him there. Build him a throne of sticks and mud. Let him rule over a Kingdom of stagnant water, and serve him as a vassal there. Take your plump wife and make a court of many yellow-clad swordsmen and midget witches to rival the Knights of the Table Hound. But the Hamlet will never open its gates to you.”

Lotte looked at the Ochre Hellebore hopefully. John guessed she wanted to go back to the Weald. After all, she was contented just to have her pretty man bimbo give her hugs and kisses.

“I gave you a way to end this peaceably, and honorably,” the Ochre Hellebore replied. “What comes now is on your head.”

“No,” John replied, raising one of his pistols from his belt. “This is on yours.”

With careful aim he fired off a round down from the wall. There was a cloud of smoke, a loud boom, and a whistle as the ball found the skull of Old King Hank. The corpse-king’s head rocked back with violence, then fell over with an exhausted sigh in a heap. The Ochre Hellebore tossed his hat on the ground, and began stomping on it.

“You fucking bastards, you need to stop doing that! Stop it, you-you-you FUCKS!” He shouted, stomping on his hat until it was crumpled like an accordion. He pointed at the dead corpse with a finger shaking in anger. “Lotte, restore the King!”

Lotte got off her stool with difficulty, and made her way on her stubby legs to go resurrect the King yet again. As she did so, the Ochre Hellebore drew his sword. “I’m coming up there, Purchase!” He screamed. “And I’m going to hang you with your own intestines!”

True to his word, the yellow streak leapt across the battlefield, dodging cannon, crossbow bolt, and flung tomahawk on a collision course with the wall. His rapier flashed in the light as it cut the air, and he screamed like a madman. His legions of freaks and slaves followed behind him, empowered by their master’s frenzy, baying with such ferocity that John’s stomach felt like ice.

Drawing his second pistol, John took a calming breath. The wall was forty feet high. The Ochre Hellebore, deadly as he was, couldn’t climb this wall…could he?

John looked to Gerard. “Could he?” He asked, assuming that the Bounty Hinter knew his thoughts.

Gerard inspected his hook, and the wall, then snorted.

* * *

“Colonel Travis, marm,” Nicolette announced.

Colonel Travis bore dark circles under his eyes. He looked tired, and slightly disheveled, but then Nicolette had only left to summon him twenty minutes ago. Fanny received him in the sitting room, sitting on one of her uncomfortable chairs. She sprang up as he entered, doing her best to portray an air of urgent, haughty insistence rather than desperate earnestness. Travis was not necessarily a bad man, but he was a climber, and such men could smell weakness and indecision, and turn them to their advantage. Usually, that was expensive, which was fine if that was it, but it led to laziness or delay, and Fanny could tolerate neither.

“Colonel, I thank you for coming at this hour,” Fanny said, her tone stiff. “Tea?”

Her formality worked, for the Colonel was unsure precisely what the Dowager sand wolf was after, and did not detect her urgency. “N-no thank you, My Lady,” he said. He cleared his throat. “How may I be of service?”

“I need you to muster your troops, Colonel,” Fanny said. “Immediately.”

The Colonel looked downward, and his eyes searched left to right. “May I ask why?” He asked at last, looking back up at Fanny. “Is there word from the King?”

“Not from the King, but concerning him,” Fanny said. “The Ochre Hellebore is at the Darkest Estate, with an army.”

She handed him the letter. Well, a letter, for it was not exactly the letter from John. This one was redacted of anything untoward, which would do for her purposes.

Travis read the report quietly. “This is grave indeed. The Company is nearby, at Norland,” he said at last. “One hundred and fifty men can be ready to march in three hours. The rest of the Regiment would take longer to muster.”

“Muster the Company, and send them on their way. Have them march for the Darkest Estate,” Fanny said. “They will follow the guide that I send with them. You shall continue to muster the Regiment, and head off after them while I gather more soldiers.”

“More? You’ll have 780 men and mamono,” Colonel Travis said. “That should be enough for a rabble like…”

“I intend to raise twenty thousand,” Fanny said.

Colonel Travis coughed. “Twenty thousand?! Your Ladyship, that is…”

“Colonel, we have underestimated the Ochre Hellebore in the past. Despite his moronic intelligence and baffling goals, his low cunning has beguiled those considered the sharpest…even myself, I confess,” Fanny said with distaste at having to admit the fact. “I do not intend to underestimate him again.”

“To raise twenty thousand men…it will require the bulk of the Royal Garrison,” Colonel Travis said.

“I intend to head to Loudon, first, to speak to my Royal Nephew,” Fanny said. “As for your regiment, you will have it move out immediately. When you arrive, send word on the situation. The nature of time is ungainly, but word will come.”

“That is well, marm, but I must point out that I do not have any orders…” Colonel Travis sputtered.

Fanny shot him a glare, which was enough to remind him of things. Yes, technically Lady DeBoerg was not in the chain of command, in the same way she technically didn’t run the country. But in moments such as these, it did not pay to make her use the back channels. She didn’t even need to remind him that she was going to see the King. The Colonel clicked his heels, and bowed.

“I shall set out, at once,” he replied. “But I must point out that the Imperial Army is not to move within Anglars without authorization from the House of Lords.”

Fanny nodded. “Of course, but given the situation I do not see that approval as difficult to acquire. You have always been a dear friend, Colonel. Your quick actions will save the monarchy, I am sure. Make sure that you defer to Jonathan Purchase when you arrive – he is the Steward of the town, and has the best understanding of the situation.”

Travis’ jaw clenched, but he bowed his head. He did not like the idea of taking orders from a civilian, but he was used to listening to the borderline ridiculous commands of the aristocracy. “Very well, My Lady,” he said.

Fanny smiled. “You will have my personal gratitude if you make sure that you Johnathan Purchase is unharmed,” she said.

Travis’ eyes brightened. Yes, he understood that well. Fanny could make him a Viceroy, a Duke even. Elevate him as a Lord. “I understand, My Lady, if you will excuse me, I go to muster my Host.”

The Colonel gave a formal bow, then departed the room at a brisk pace. “A good man, Travis,” Nicolette said, watching him exit the house and head towards the stables. She yawned. “He’ll get to John as soon as he can.”

“A dutiful officer, if a bit uninspired at times,” Fanny said. “But orthodox men such as he are the bulwark of an army.,” Fanny produced two folded letters from her end table, and handed them to Nicolette.

“I have letters that must be posted at once. Have this one posted to Rushworth Manor, to Desiree Rushworth. And have this one sent to Reverend Fairchild,” Fanny said.

“Reverend Fairchild?” Nicolette echoed, nonetheless taking the letter. “Whatever for?”

Fanny smiled. “He needs my help,” she replied. “And as fortuitous as it is, I need his help, also.”

* * *

The Ochre Hellebore was scaling the wall. Aside from the fact that the madman was climbing as if his hands were claws, John could see that there was something that was unnatural lurking in the swordsman’s eyes, shimmering like the nascent grin of a devil. John suppressed a shudder. Even on this chilled battlefield, in the unnatural cavern winds and surrounded by sounds of battle and the snarls and gurgles of hideous things, the look within the Ochre Hellebore’s eyes was unnatural and disturbing. This Bouvethoth was in him, watching him, the way a master holds a dog on a leash. They walked in the same direction, and so Bouvethoth gave his unwitting pet slack to move. But if he deviated from his purpose, the leash would go taut, and he would be brought under his master’s control.

The yellow warrior had his rapier in his mouth (which was odd, since he had a scabbard), and he was going end over end up the wall like a spider or a bug. How in the hell was he doing that? Bullets and bolts flew about him, missing him as if he were protected by some kind of armor, almost as if he were the hero in a swashbuckler’s story. John mused that perhaps that was the source of his power; no, not actually being the hero in some moribund trash written by a hack like Spidernon, but having the mindset that he was, and having such an utter faith in his rightness that an astonished universe protected him out of fear of being impolite. If such were the case, then John did not like his odds when the Ochre Hellebore reached the top of the walls.

The rest of the fighting was going well. The attackers were repulsed, as the lepers and other adventurers fought savagely and with vigor, and John knew that the walls would hold unless the Ochre Hellebore made it atop them. The yellow swordsman’s valor wouldn’t inspire the shambling horrors and unliving constructs in his army, but his example could spur the fanatics, brigands, and beastmen to fight harder to redouble their assault. The fanaticism of the Ochre Hellebore, coupled with the sinister force within him, made John’s hand shake with nervous dread.

And yet he reloaded his pistol, pouring in powder and jamming in a ball as quickly as he could with trembling hands. He would have only one shot, and likely it would not fare any better than the missed shots those of the deadeyes along the wall, but he would take it. The Hellebore was the swashbuckling hero in his story, but John would not run in his own.

The Hellebore drew himself up the wall, standing upon the edge with arms akimbo and looking very pleased with himself. It appeared that John stood alone before him. Gerard may have been able to fight the Hellebore, and was cunning enough to defeat him, but he was busy at the moment, bringing his axe down into the skull of a fishman as a throng of them flooded the wall between him and John. The Ochre Hellebore, seeing no one with John, took his sword in hand from his mouth and held it outward, slashing the air. John lowered his pistol at his foe.

The Ochre Hellebore walked towards John, utterly unconcerned, and with clenched teeth John pulled the trigger. The hammer slammed, there was a click, and nothing happened. It was a misfire.

The odds were vanishingly small that such a thing would happen, but of course it happened all the time for the Ochre Hellebore, who walked forward with confidence, his sword out, preparing to strike. He even laughed.

John discarded his pistol with a curse, and drew his sabre. It had been worth a shot, he told himself, as the Hellebore drew near. John knew he had no hope of winning a swordfight, and that only one thing could save him now. His faith was well-placed.

“AVAST!” Captain L’Ever yelled, thrusting with his rapier and nearly skewering the surprised Ochre Hellebore. The swashbuckler was cagey, and he was cunning, but John had reasoned he could draw him into a fight against his best sword. The sea captain had lay in wait, out of sight, to reveal himself at this moment.

Captain L’Ever pressed his attack, and thrusted again with a loud swear. The Ochre Hellebore dodged, wide-eyed, as he beheld the one man whom he could be said to fear. He retreated back several steps, guard up, and recovered his composure. The two old foes began to circle, slowly moving to the extent of their sword range, and with eyes as piercing as their blades.

“L’Ever…” the Ochre Hellebore growled, the stone thudding beneath his feet as he circled. “I was hoping you’d finally drowned. So, you managed to find your way down here, did you?”

“Aye, I have, Ochre. Ye best be getting yer plumper ready, because she’s gonna have to raise yer corpse soon,” Captain L’Ever taunted. He grinned, which was partly a baring of teeth. “She’ll have to tie a ribbon around the bone she means to mount…”

“I’d tell you to get your wife ready, but your hand will be buried at sea with you,” The Ochre Hellebore replied icily.

Captain L’Ever laughed. “Ah how I hate ye, ya ponce, and always have. Well, enough talk…”

“Have at you!”

The swords of two men crossed as cries filled the air, followed by the clanging of steel upon steel. The greatest swordfight in the long history of the Darkest Estate had begun.

* * *

The stagecoach glided smoothly on the road to Loudon. Fanny had put her own funds and energy into fixing the roads, and now this main artery to the capital had been impeccably leveled and smoothed. Each stone was placed to the Lady DeBoerg’s exacting specifications. There was none of the bumpiness or jostling on the other roads. She would fix them in time.

It was as smooth journey, and it would have been pleasant, but it was in the opposite direction from the Darkest Manor. Fanny grunted and checked the road. Darkest Manor was where she wanted to be heading, but she needed to get her affairs sorted. She did not perceive too much difficulty in getting the King to agree with her plans – she had already determined what line to take for that. The key was time.

Time.

Everything had been going so well. She had managed to secure the King’s approval, although it had not gone quite as without issue as she had told John in the letter. But there was no need to mention that, it was well under control.

The King had stopped by DeBoerg manor with Barnabus and a few others on the way to hunting quail. The situation with Cronides had been diffused. Although the headaches with the Olyskian Empire continued, the King was blissfully unaware of those. Fanny had been free to broach the subject of a union with her young Artist.

“John Purchase is a gifted young man,” Fanny had said. Her eyes had gone to Barnabus. There was a moment where she wondered if a man known for backstabbing would try to double-cross her, and she could tell that Barnabus was wrestling with that idea, too. But she had several contingencies for if he went back on his word. “He has become wealthy and prosperous at his Uncle’s estate, and he has been raised and educated as a gentleman.”

“That is well and good -money is always nice- but all this recent talk of strikes…it worries me,” the King had said, idly flicking a crochet needle and messing up Fanny’s very precisely organized yarn. She had suppressed the urge to run over and fix it all. “A mere gentleman…I’m not sure I am comfortable with a marriage of one of the members of the High Aristocracy to a man of low birth. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the strike has made many groups awfully familiar…”

Fanny had begun to raise a protest, and argue the counterpoint, when Barnabus cleared his throat. He held a scroll in his hand. “As it so happens, Your Grace, I took the liberty of having the background of the Purchase family investigated. John is the direct male line descendant of Shaddam, Earl of Kroy…”

Fanny recalled how Richard had narrowed his eyes at this. “That seems improbable. In fact, it seems like the kind of thing my Aunt would pay someone to say.”

“What nonsense,” Fanny had scoffed with a wave of her paw. “I paid for nothing. And at any rate, what difference does it make? There is no need for me to marry the Dauphin of DeTerre, and young Mister Purchase is now wealthy and powerful.”

Richard grunted. “Well, I suppose…what is this proof of his lineage, anyways?”

Barnabus handed the scroll to the king. “I commissioned Spidernon to do a genealogy on John Purchase.”

The King had frowned at the mention of the fat author, and unfurled the scroll, which was stained with chicken grease to the point it was see-through. “This just has a line going down the page…at the top it says, ‘Shaddam Kroy’ and at the bottom, ‘John Purchase’. And it just says, ‘a lot of people’ in the middle.”

“Well, that’s to fit it all on one page,” Barnabus had said. “I mean, supposing there were a bunch of names there, it’d ultimately be the same thing, right? You wouldn’t know which ones to check, would you?”

“Well that’s why we have scribes and things,” Richard replied.

“But they checked this, and approved it. See that watermark on the paper? It’s from the Royal Archives.”

Richard ran his fingers over the raised section with approval. “Oh, I like that. It looks very smart. And this coloring is very nice…”

“That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail…”

The King then rolled up the scroll. “Very well,” he had said. He held out the document . Fanny had moved to grasp it, but Barnabus took it, grinning all the while. Fanny then realized the spider’s trap. He held the documents which made John legitimate – and the means of disproving them.

But while Barnabus’ shrewd maneuver gave her some degree of indigestion, it did not worry her as much as this new campaign. She thought of John, and let out a whine that would have been imperceptible to most ears, save those of her traveling companion.

“Are you alright, My Lady?” She asked. “Is something wrong?”

Fanny sighed, watching as the trees past and the sun flickered between their leaves. There were sheep in a field beyond, and Fanny suppressed an annoying urge to bark at them. “I am just impatient, Nicolette. We need time.”

Fanny could hear Nicolette’s own tired sigh. “I worry that this business…” she began.

Fanny turned away from the window and stared at her servant -and closest friend- with tired eyes. Nicolette was biting her lip, looking on uneasily. “Finish your statement, Nicolette,” she said in an even tone.

Now, Nicolette whined. “Maybe I shouldn’t,” she protested.

“Let it disturb the air. Make it real, make me hear it,” Fanny said, almost a plea.

“I worry that this business may take quite a bit of time…” Nicolette stopped, waiting for her Mistress to respond.

The Anubis, however, said nothing, but listened with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. Taking a deep breath, Nicolette continued on.

“What if the army comes too late to…be of help?” Nicolette asked.

Fanny nodded slowly. “Then it shall not matter,” she said. “I will have squandered money, either for John to be fine, or John to be dead. But the time between here and below stretches and shrinks; it may very well be our force arrives minutes after he sends his letter, or after crows have picked clean his corpse. I cannot say when the army will arrive, whether too early or too late, but it will arrive, that I can guarantee. What I do know is that the more haste we make, the quicker I shall know. And beyond that, as hard as it is for me to fathom, there is the Realm to think of. The Ochre Hellebore has an army, and it is a threat. We must be prepared to address that.”

This answer satisfied Nicolette, who for her part wanted to help her mistress above all things. Indeed, she had slept as little as Fanny had, with dark circles under her careworn face. Fanny reached out her paw, and took Nicolette’s in her own.

“Nicolette…thank you,” Fanny said. “I do not say it much, because as you know I feel displays of affection may trigger class warfare, but thank you, Nicolette, for being with me.”

Nicolette smiled. “I am honored to serve you, Lady DeBoerg,” she said. “I only hope we come to a good end.”

Fanny’s nostrils flared, and she pouted her lips. “As good an end as is possible. John has let Martin marry that awful Anna Woodeville, though she has shed that name yet again and is now called La Creatura.”

Nicolette looked confused. “She’s Ibian now?”

“Close enough. She’s a Shambler, some kind of tentacle monster. But she’s snookered my poor Martin.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing, right now. I shall need to find some spellbook in that crazy place, so I can kill her if she hurts my Martin,” Fanny said.

“But what about Martin?”

“What about him?”

“Are you going to disinherit him, as you said?” Nicolette asked.

Fanny sighed. “It doesn’t matter much if I do, or not. Martin has his own wealth. And once I have bred Mister Purchase, our sons and daughters shall inherit the bulk of the estate. I shall carve out something for him, but not as much as he had stood to gain before I met John. There will be no Martin to disinherit if I don’t get reinforcements to the Darkest Estate.”

“Will there be any trouble with that?”

“Not when he sees the letter,” Fanny said, patting her breast where the letter was folded. She cleared her throat, and cast a sideways glance. “When we arrive, make sure to have rooms ready for the Rushworths. I shall expect them soon.”

“Of course, My Lady. I am surprised you are not sending them on to the Darkest Estate…” Nicolette said.

“I have need of the Alessas. On that note, a chest should be arriving for us at my Hotel in Loudon, from Reverend Fairchild.”

Nicolette raised an eyebrow. “The response to your letter?”

Fanny nodded. “When it arrives, you are to tip the courier handsomely, and then place the package it in the vault. Do not tamper with it, do not touch the lock on the chest, or try to open it, or to even stare at the chest for too long. Give me the key.”

Nicolette stared at Fanny sideways. “What is it?” She asked. “Is it dangerous?”

“Very,” Fanny replied. She looked at her paw, and made a fist. “It is power.”

* * *

L’Ever and the Ochre Hellebore’s duel might have been sport on the sands of an ancient arena, before crowds cheering and emperors licking their lips with anticipation of that delicious moment of final bloodshed. Both combatants had dueled before, so many times that they understood each other’s styles, knew each other’s flourishes and foibles, detected each other’s mistakes, and were wary of each other’s strengths. The fight was as physical as it was technical, with both men grappling until clothes were torn, faces were punched bloody, and blades chipped and bent.

L’Ever was stronger, but the Ochre Hellebore was swifter, and so both men were evenly matched. John might have asked Gerard to aid Captain L’Ever, or Baldwin, or even tried to enter the fray himself, but he understood that there was a reckoning happening here, a test of will and fates which needed to resolve itself. John had entrusted his life to Fate, and he must entrust this deadly battle to it as well.

The fight between the two men was a war in itself, a war fought not over Kings or territories, but pride, past offenses, and incompatible senses of duty. John watched with rising dread, and rising uncertainty. The battle hinged on this one duel. He guessed that Fanny would have shot the Ochre Hellebore by now, or had some other clever scheme to kill him, but that was not John’s way. It had been unwise, and he wondered if such a cavalier attitude was foolishness.

L’Ever and the Ochre Hellebore had locked blades, and the fight had become a grapple between the two. In this, L’Ever held the advantage, and was overpowering the Hellebore, but the canny swordsman made his move.

He released his grip on his sword and sidestepped, making Captain L’Ever’s blade sail wide and making the old sailor fall forward. It took less than a second for Captain L’Ever to recover his balance, but that was all the time that the Ochre Hellebore needed.

A dagger glinted in the light, drawn from across the Ochre Hellebore’s body into his sword hand. The dagger was visible for a moment before it thrust forward, finding its way through Captain L’Ever’s pea-coat and into his side.

“Aargh!” The old pirate yelled, his agony so evident that John cried out in pain, himself.

John’s heart rose into his throat even as his stomach descended to his feet. “No!” He shouted, outstretching his hand and taking a step towards the wounded Pirate. All eyes turned upon the spot, and all fighting stopped. For once, Gerard did not snort with laughter.

Blood rose in Captain Lever’s mouth, and dripped out the sides. The Ochre Hellebore’s nostrils flared, and in his face was the icy stare of a man watching his enemy die, the grim satisfied look of a grave moment, a victory at high cost. Captain L’Ever, who was gasping and choking on the rising wellspring of his own blood, was unsteady on his feet. He might have faltered, and all expected him too, but his grimace of agony turned to a scowl, as the pained look in his eyes hardened like gleaming steel. With a loud snarl, he head-butted the Ochre Hellebore in the mouth, his forehead connecting with the swordsman’s front teeth. The Ochre Hellebore cried out in pain and surprise, spitting blood, and reeling from the hit and the fervor which was in it, the yellow swordsman retreated a step, relinquishing the dagger in the old pirate’s side.

But L’Ever was upon him. In his fury he discarded his sword to the ground with a clang, and with a loud cry like from a primeval Viking, he seized the Ochre Hellebore. His eyes crazed, and possessed of some immense strength, he lifted the Ochre Hellebore above his head. Now conscious of his foe’s danger, the Ochre Hellebore began to furiously resist, and while he was strong and skilled, Captain L’Ever was a man possessed. He marched forward, the Ochre Hellebore above his head howling and screaming as he struggled, before he reached the wall and, with one might heave, tossed the Ochre Hellebore over the side.

As the yellow swordsman disappeared from view with a terrified scream, Captain L’Ever crumpled in a heap. John raced over to him, taking the wounded sailor in his arms. Captain L’Ever let out a tired groan as John held him. Gone was the force of nature of seconds before, in his place was a man drained of blood, a man soon to be dead. The wound was deep.

“Captain…” John lamented. He put a hand to his friend’s brow, feeling the clammy sweat there. And the cold. “Edouard, I should have helped you…”

“Ye knew better, lad,” Captain L’Ever said, his voice trembling in pain, and yet at peace. “Twas between me and the Ochre Hellebore, always was, always was. Was me fight, and now its done. He ran me through, and I tossed ‘im off. Life…fer a life.”

“Not if I can help it. Pasha!” John called, somewhat against his judgement. The Occultist was as likely to kill L’Ever as aid him, but the other healers were all gone, and John reasoned the sailor would die anyway if no help was offered.

The Occultist was at the side of the Captain and John swiftly. Pasha wasted no time, but raised his arms in prayer to the astral waifus. “Zin Zael Zarek!” He intoned, pointing his fingers at the wound. John tensed, fearing the blood gushing from around the dagger would multiply in its flow. But what happened next was not what John expected, and not what anyone would have expected: nothing happened. There was no miraculous mending of flesh, or any rending of it.

“What’s going on?” John asked. “Did the spell fail?”

“It did. It’s of no use,” Pasha said with a defeated sigh. “I cannot heal the wound.”

“Why not?” John asked.

“He is beyond Death’s Door,” Pasha said, putting a swarthy hand to the old Pirate’s chest with surprising care. “It is the malevolent hand of Bouvethoth…”

“You, ah, know about him?”

Pasha smiled, wanly. “The Husk is partly what drew me here,” he whispered. “Its power grows. I fear…I fear he is intervening, pulling those close to death inexorably into the chasm. Perhaps if I had gotten to him, earlier…”

“Don’t…don’t ye be blamin’ yerself, Pasha” Captain L’Ever said. “Nor you, John…,”

John felt his eyes well. “No, Captain…” he said, taking the old sailor’s hand.

“John, John…Always remember, John: a man chooses, a slave obeys…”

“…What?” John asked, resecuring his grip on the sailor’s weakening hand.

L’Ever’s breathing became ragged. “John…you were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister, you were right…”

“Captain…what the hell are you talking about?” John asked, bewildered.

“I…I go to the halls of me fathers,” The old pirate said with a smile. His voice was fading. “In whose great company…I shall not be ashamed.”

He exhaled, and he was gone. John rested his head upon the old pirate’s shoulder, and a shudder went through him.

“I’m sorry…” he whispered to the dead man. He heard Pasha let out a very quiet sob. “Goodbye, old friend.”

“No!” A shrill, familiar voice cried out in a very unfamiliar way. Aunt Norris pushed John and Pasha aside, and raced to the deceased pirate. She pulled the knife from Captain L’Ever’s side, and mashed her hands into the wound with a bandage. Aunt Norris slapped the pale corpse, then poked a bony finger in his face. “You listen to me, Captain L’Ever: you can’t go dying. We need you here.”

“It’s too late, Aunt Norris,” John said. “He’s passed.”

Aunt Norris ignored the comment. She took John’s hand, and pushed it to the bandage. “Keep pressure there,” she said, and John obeyed, numb to everything, aware she would realize it was futile in time. She reached between her breasts (much to John’s horror) and removed a small crystal phial of light pinkish color. She uncorked the bottle and held it up to Captain L’Ever’s lips. “Drink this,” she commanded.

“He can’t hear you, he’s dead,” John repeated.

“You keep your hands on the bandage,” Aunt Norris commanded. She opened Captain L’Ever’s mouth, and poured the draught into his throat, tilting his head back to force it down.

“What is that?” John asked.

Aunt Norris waited to answer until after the liquid was gone. “I was worried that you might suffer a grievous wound, or perhaps die,” she explained. “And so, I figured Anacletus must have some kind of way to make a potion or something to fix that. I went through his archives…” she shuddered at the memory of something within. “And after I saw some dreadful drawings, I found a few recipes which looked promising.”

“Promising? What is that potion that you made?” John asked.

“I didn’t make the potion; well, not all of it,” Aunt Norris said cryptically. Her eyes were fixated on the face of Captain L’Ever, watching him intently.

After a moment of pregnant silence, a miracle occurred: the corpse gasped. He was breathing. Captain L’Ever was breathing again. John let out a cry of amazement, his eyes watering, and Pasha laughed, then wiped his eyes with a trembling hand.

“Of course!” The occultist exclaimed, slapping his forehead below the turban. “Humanity…”

“What?” John asked. “What’s going on? Why is Captain L’Ever alive again?”

Aunt Norris rubbed Captain Lever’s bloody chest with something that almost resembled tenderness.

“Your Idian manservant is partly right: Humanity was involved. It was that Fong Dao, the man who manages Chao’s restaurant, who made the potion. He saw that I had the recipes. He showed me which one would work, and said he could make it, but that it required the Milk of Human Kindness.”

“I’m not actually Idian,” Pasha corrected.

John frowned. “Where does that come from?”

“Well, it has to do with this rare black…thing, that glows although it is dark as a shadow. They call it Humanity, though how the hell it can be called that is beyond me. Fong Dao had one in a jar.”

“Humanity can heal one cursed with the Darksign, but not those who are fully Human,” Pasha said.

“Yes. By itself Humanity does nothing, but if you mix it with a, um, particular fluid, it becomes capable of reversing the effects of death,” Aunt Norris said.

Pasha frowned. “Ohhhhh. I know this recipe…” he said slowly. He looked disturbed.

John’s eyes darted “Blood?” He asked timidly, dreading the answer which would taint L’Ever’s miraculous return. And yet, John discovered it was so, so much worse.

“Milk,” Aunt Norris replied. She shifted her chest, making her bosom heave. “A woman’s milk.”

John stared at her, uncomprehending, for a moment. When finally he fathomed the unfathomable, his lip curled in horror and disgust, and he shrank away as if from an pile of maggots. “No…” he rasped, shaking his head.

Aunt Norris folded her arms and pursed her lips, and the vision made the thought even worse. “And why not? I’m a woman, aren’t I?”

“But…how?! You’re not pregnant!” John screamed.

“Your Asiatic has a special tea that made me, um, produce…” Aunt Norris said.

Pasha shuddered.

“Y-you were going to give me…” John said, putting a hand to his throat.

“If it resurrected you, who cares?” Aunt Norris snapped. She looked at Captain L’Ever, and put a hand to his forehead. The color was returning to his cheeks. “Fortunately for us both, Captain L’Ever needed it, and so now it will restore his life instead of yours. His color is returning,” she said.

Sure enough, it looked as there had been a suffusion of blood into his body from some unknown source. His eyes were shut, but he had settled into a peaceful sleep. Aunt Norris looked very satisfied with herself.

“It works,” she said. She patted down her chest. “The old girls have some magic in them…”

John’s gag reflex kicked in, and he made a sound much like a throat trying to swallow itself. So strong was the potent reaction of his esophagus that his vision went black for a moment, and when his awareness returned he could see stars. He could taste stomach bile at the back of his mouth. Pasha had seemed better equipped to handle it, either by desensitization to the macabre from his studies, or indifference to the knowledge of Aunt Norris having breastmilk.

“I did save your friend’s life, you know,” Aunt Norris replied in a tone more annoyed than hurt, after John’s sense had returned. “Such a display is not warranted.”

John nodded, wiping the cold sweat from his brow. “No, you are right, I’m sorry,” he lied. He reached down and felt at L’Ever’s pulse. He only understood the rudiments of first aid, but even he could feel that the pirate’s pulse was strong. The wound in his side, covered by soiled bandages, had stopped bleeding. “So how much more of this Milk of Human Kindness can we make?”

Aunt Norris sighed. “There only was enough of that black sprite Humanity for the one potion. The Asiatic said something about getting it with cracked eye orbs or jolly cooperation.”

“Yes…” Pasha said, rubbing his chin. “There is a toothy serpent, one in the Abyss, who makes covenants. We have many cracked eyes. It would be possible to get more.”

John looked down at Captain L’Ever, then at Aunt Norris’ chest. He felt lightheaded, and he swallowed to attempt to keep his breakfast down. “Well, we must give it thought…”

“Is there a need?” Aunt Norris asked. “Captain L’Ever tossed the Hellebore off the wall. He must be dead…”

John stood, and assessed the situation. The armies of the Zombie King had pulled back, leaving the exhausted defenders to regroup. He looked over the side of the wall, down at where the Ochre Hellebore had fallen. In the cratered ground before the walls, in a pile of yellow clothes, was the broken body of the madman called the Ochre Hellebore. By all rights he should have been dead, but as John looked down, he saw the body draw a ragged breath.

John drew his pistol, and aimed it between the eyes of the Ochre Hellebore. This would end it, cleanly. Succinctly. With the Ochre Hellebore dead, there would be no push to take the town. He would end the threat. His hand shook. He would be executing a defenseless, wounded man. But perhaps it would be a mercy. He guessed at what Lady DeBoerg would do right now, a woman with the fortitude to do just about anything if she felt it were necessary. His finger made its way to the trigger, and the gun trembled.

Lotte was cresting the hill at full speed, running to her downed husbando with a look of such terrified fright that John felt a great sorrow. She saw the pistol in his hands, and tossed her shortstack body over her broken Husbando, burying her trembling face into his chest. John relinquished his finger from the trigger.

He watched as Lotte smashed a queer black sprites in her palm, then freeing her breast from her shirt, she put it to the Ochre Hellebore’s mouth.

“Humanity…she’s going to heal him,” Pasha said, urgently.

“What are you waiting for, John?” Aunt Norris hissed. “Shoot her! End this!”

John knew that he should. It was the smart move. The armies would dissolve. He would save lives. The Ochre Hellebore was an enemy. A cur. A traitor to the King. He would do the same to him, if he could.

And yet to contemplate pulling the trigger gave John a feeling of sickness even greater than the thought of Aunt Norris’ milk. His finger relaxed its grip. “No,” he said at last, panting and trembling as if he had just come out of an epileptic fit. “No, I won’t do that.”

The Ochre Hellebore’s chest heaved, and a ragged moan escaped from his lips. His troops closed ranks around him, and the moment when John could have ended all of this was gone.

* * *

The King was at his small games table, pondering over chess pieces upon the checkerboard shape on the table’s surface. He was playing a game remotely with the King of DeTerre, a game which had given the ambassadors and diplomats on both sides considerable heartburn. Richard was about to be checkmated in seven moves. This fact had become apparent to the Foreign Office three moves earlier, and they were now trying to find a way to mitigate the damage from the upcoming loss. The King would insist upon sending a letter accusing his cousin Louis of cheating, which, regardless of if it was true or not, would lead to increased tensions and a sort of gay slap fight across the channel that would culminate in many headaches and potential acts of terrorism.

But that was a problem to be dealt with in seven moves. “Ah, Aunt Frances! Come in, come in,” the King said, waving her over. “I didn’t know you were in town…I’m just putting the final touches on this game. You know, I think I’m going to win, for once!”

“Your Majesty,” Fanny began with a hurried bow. She chose her gravest and most fearful voice. “I come with grave news – there is a threat to the throne.”

Of such a simple mind was Richard, that for a moment he turned and looked at his chair. He then sat up straight, and looked to Barnabus. The majordomo furrowed his brow, and looked to Fanny with a piercing gaze. He was an ally in part, but not in total, though Fanny was quite certain that she would be able to manipulate them both into aiding her.

“The Ochre Hellebore has shown up at the Darkest Estate,” Fanny said. “And he has Old King Hank with him, with an army to put him on the throne..”

“The Hellebore..,” Barnabus said, and his eyes flashed with anger. Fanny knew Barnabus was smarting after his humiliation, and he was petty enough to spend anything to kill the Hellebore. She would use that to her advantage.

“I am confused. How can he have King Hank? He’s dead as a door nail,” Richard said. “He has his body?”

“Things work differently beneath the earth. One only has to have met that strange Anacletus Rushworth to appreciate that,” Fanny said. “Even if we suppose that this ‘King Hank’ is some old man playing a part, the Ochre Hellebore is there with an army.”

“H-how big is this army?”

“My spies have only estimates, but they count some fifteen thousand men,” Fanny said without any hesitation. It was a lie, but one couched such that if it were wrong, it was impossible to hold her to account. She had no spies, just John’s letter. But if in reality it was a smaller amount, it was easy to say the spies overestimated. If too many, then they had only seen a portion of the army. But the number of fifteen thousand would be the best way to ask the King to loan her the twenty from the Loudon garrison.

Richard slapped a hand to his forehead, and let out a cry of shock. It was precisely the reaction Fanny had wanted. The King stood, nudging his table and shifting the pieces slightly. He made his way to his desk. “A map!” He called. “A map of Anglars, bring it here!”

Hastily one was brought down from the walls and stretched out across the desk. The King paced back and forth as it was lain down, and Barnabus ran his hand along its surface to be flattened.

Richard raced to it, and stabbed a finger at a spot towards the top of the map. For all his faults, the King knew his lands well.

“Kroy,” he said grimly. “They could reach Kroy within two days. The city…the city will not hold, not against fifteen thousand men.”

“It isn’t exactly ‘men’, Your Majesty. It is various monstrosities and mamono which are considerably worse than men.”

Richard balled his fist. “Such a force…” he looked up at Barnabus. “Mortimer holds Kroy. That smarmy bastard, he has a drooping eye. He’s never been loyal to me, and he’ll turn at the first chance he gets. If Kroy falls, then the Hellebore can invade lower Anglars…”

Barnabus and Fanny exchanged a look. The King was panicking, which was to both of their purposes at this moment. A rare accord was between them.

“We are fortunate in one respect,” Fanny said. She pointed with her paw at the mountains and hill country of the Darkest Estate. “The army has not yet breached the surface. Anacletus Rushworth and his family hold it, but at great cost in blood and treasure.”

“Anacletus…” Richard repeated. “I don’t know much about this sorcerer. W-what sort of man is he? Is he loyal?”

“Anacletus is not managing the defense. His nephew, the dynamic young Squire John Purchase, manages the defenses.”

“Purchase? I am unfamiliar with that name,” Richard said, for he had forgotten it. “I suppose it is better than a Peer…yes, I can only imagine what I’d owe Cronides if he was there, or Athlon, or Derceto…” a light flashed in his eyes. “…wait, Purchase! He was the commoner you wanted to marry, from the Shit Fields. I know because Barnabus told me all those delightful stories about his poverty.”

“But we had settled on his breeding being sufficient,” Barnabus interjected. “I was mistaken, remember?”

“Oh right, right. Fair enough, then,” Richard said. “Given his lineage, he can marry you, but only if he helps me defeat the Ochre Hellebore…”

“He shall, with our help,” Fanny said. “We must move quickly, Your Grace – the Loudon Garrison must be mobilized. My recommendation is to dispatch them under General Bardon to the Darkest Estate.”

“And Kroy?” The King asked. “I don’t trust Mortimer…”

“We can dispatch harpies to take them a message,” Barnabus said. “The city can begin to prepare its defenses. Our cousin Reilly is in the city. He can muster the militia, and keep Mortimer honest.”

“Good, good,” Richard said. “Is…is there something else we should do? Should we raise more levies?”

“Not yet. We must thread the needle with the Nobles carefully. What was the name of that Colonel?” Fanny asked. “The sharpshooter who fought the Bataans.”

“Colonel Beane!” Richard said with a sudden animation. “Good man, good man,” he said. “Do you need him for this?”

“I should like to have him, and his sharpshooters,” Fanny said. “All twenty.”

The King nodded. “By all means. Tell Beane I want him to shoot Old King Hank between the eyes.”

“Of course. And one other thing, Your Grace,” Fanny said. “I wish to enlist the services of your Dwarven Blacksmith.”

“Esther?” Richard asked. He rubbed his chin, then laughed. “Doubtless you have some contraption or another you wish her to build.”

“Several,” Fanny replied. She took a deep breath. “But I need her skill to repair something. There is magic beneath the earth, in that foul place,” she said. “And as deeply as it disturbs me, we must have magic of our own to fight it.”

Barnabus laughed. “Aunt Fanny, I am surprised at you. Superstition! We are a people of Science and Reason. Gone are the days when it was said that breastmilk could resurrect the dead, or that an evil king living in a beetle shell was near the center of the earth!”

“Yes,” Fanny said. “But the Sciences have given us many innovations, and some are so wondrous that they can combat the strange forces beneath us. And we know that there was once a very advanced and mighty civilization There is, after all, the Archousa.”

“The statue at the heart of Loudon? What of it?” Barnabus asked with a furrowed brow.

“I have been doing some reading…” Fanny said, bringing out the old moth-bitten tome. “From the ravings of Acidis, the so-called madman of Kassam.”

“So-called?” Richard asked. “Didn’t he try to hang himself with his underwear?”

“I would give him a pass for that. After all, he was locked in an asylum,” Fanny replied. She opened the book to the page which had the rough sketch of Archousa. “But I have read his ravings, and deciphered the old tongue. According to him, Archousa is a colossal weapon, one which requires the Heart of Hyperborea to come to life. The heart was missing by Acidis’ time, and he had several theories on its location. All of them are wrong, however, for I have the Heart.”

Richard and Barnabus both started in the same way. Looked to each other, then leaned in at their Aunt.

“…your heart?”

“Eh? No, no,” Fanny said, and she motioned to Nicolette, and the blood-stained chest. “It is in there .”

Fanny beckoned to Nicolette, signaling for her to come close. Fanny produced the key, and turned it in the heavy lock. Shutting her eyes, the Nicolette unlatched the clasp of the chest with her big paws, and after a hesitation to take a breath, opened the lid. Fanny stepped aside.

The room was bathed in light, prismatic and shifting, the way sunbeams reflect off of a pond and hit the docks in summer. Barnabus and Richard stared into the chest, their eyes wide. Unconsciously, Richard seized his cousin’s arm, his hand grasping like a vulture’s claw. Fanny observed those in the room, carefully ready to stop anyone from making a rash and impulsive move to seize the treasure. Nicolette had her eyes shut tightly. Barnabus’ mouth was slightly open in wonder, and the servants standing on the walls were entranced in the glow.

What Fanny did not do was look inside the chest herself. She had seen the Heart, of course, but it was a mere means to an end for her. The effect it had on others, that was the power to exploit, and what it could do in Archousa.

“When we have defeated the Ochre Hellebore, it will of course be yours, your Highness,” Fanny said.

Richard’s nostrils flared, and he smiled. His claw-like hand gripped Barnabus’ arm tighter. “Yes…yes. Mine,” he said. “After…”

* * *

A day had passed, and the defenders within the Hamlet were holding up reasonably well. While two of John’s best teams (well, one and a half) were out beyond the walls on the mission for the Ponderous Orb, the Lepers and other remaining defenders had stemmed the tide, and inflicted serious casualties on the besieging force. John knew the numbers surrounding the Hamlet were almost countless, but such high losses were still good news. The mood in the Hamlet was never cheerful, but it was as cheerful as it ever could be. There was a sense among the defenders that this siege was a normal sequence of events for this place, and that was good. He didn’t want them to realize that things were more serious than they knew.

The day started off with a surprise. John heard the galloping of horses and the rumble of carts, and was surprised to see a sea of redcoats approaching from the path from the surface. These were not the same as the men of the Hart, the Kings personal guards, but the local regiment of Imperial troops. There were about seven hundred soldiers in all, under the command of one Colonel Travis. John feared he may be getting attacked from the surface, and that he would need to divert his forces, but the Colonel travelled forward and sought him.

“Lady DeBoerg sends her compliments,” Colonel Travis said, still on his horse. “We are here to aid in the defense of the Hamlet.”

“You are greatly appreciated,” John said. “I did not presume that Lady DeBoerg would send us aid, and so speedily…”

“Indeed, She is gathering more reinforcements from Loudon, and will disembark as soon as she has them,” Colonel Travis replied.

John’s heart leapt. “Lady DeBoerg is coming here?” He asked, excitedly.

“That is her intention,” The Colonel replied. His eyes searched, and John could see his face paling as he beheld the Hamlet’s unique charm. “What is your status?”

“They attacked us twice yesterday,” John said. “We held both times. Our casualties were light, but dear. The Ochre Hellebore was wounded.”

The Colonel lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?” He asked. “And his prognosis?”

“He will survive,” John said. He thought of that moment where he had leveled the pistol at Lotte. “Captain L’Ever has been injured, also, in the wounding of the Hellebore.”

Colonel Travis looked concerned, “Edouard? Is he alright?”

John nodded. “He was very grievously injured, but now I believe he shall recover. I am about to check on him, he’s in the tower. We can go together.”

Colonel Travis smiled, and bowed. “Yes, I would like to see the Captain. We are old friends, he and I. I was in the marines in my youth.”

John and the Colonel got the new soldiers situated in the Hamlet, then they began their walk towards the tower where Captain L’Ever convalesced, under the watchful eye of the curiously doting Aunt Norris. John was musing on the strange, impossible pairing when his Uncle, Archibald, burst out of Fong Dao’s restaurant. His garments were torn and tattered, and cuts were visible in his exposed, pale skin. He was red-faced and winded from exertion, and to see so formidable and strong a man in this state made John’s blood run cold. Something terrible had happened.

“John!” Archibald yelled. “John, come quick! The Lemon Party has gone awry!”

The words chilled John’s soul. “Uncle, what has happened?”

“Ghoulish Horrors!” He shouted. “They came…they came from everywhere! We need soldiers quickly, before we are overrun!”

As if coordinated – and John guessed it was- the tower bell sounded and clanged with alarm, and cannons fired from the outside. The walls rumbled.

“Colonel, take your men to the walls,” John said. “I will handle the threat from beneath.”

Though he understood little of what was going on, Travis was a man of fast learning, and could see that an attack was imminent on the walls. He drew his sword, and shouted orders to his officers. The trumpet sounded. The redcoats funneled towards the walls, muskets raised, and John felt some relief that at least the attack would be repelled, and this was the gentlest way to ease the Imperial Troops into the reality of the Darkest Estate. But the matter beneath Chao’s was more pressing, and needed experienced troops.

John scanned. He didn’t know exactly who was best to bring, or how many, but immediately he needed live bodies to toss down the restaurant stairs, to aid the unfortunately named Lemon Party before the situation went out of control. He dared not send the fresh troops down the stairs – the sight of Bouvethoth would make them lose their sanity almost immediately. He saw Martin and La Creatura, both yawning as they awoke from their restful sleep and nuptial coitus, and he called out to them. Such was the urgency in his voice that they understood his need, and being that both of them understood that they would need to fight in the siege, the two were before him swiftly with their weapons and equipment.

Pasha, also, was standing in the courtyard, drinking a black coffee and inspecting the severed foot of a fish man with a quizzical countenance. John called to him, and without fail he approached, gulping down all his coffee and tossing the fish foot into a barrel for Chao’s to turn into some profane yet delicious Asiatic concoction.

The ad-hoc team entered Chao’s, following Archibald as he thundered through the dining area of the restaurant and to the door into the cellar of evil. They headed down the limestone steps and into the vast cavern. Sure enough, beyond the stream, the situation had turned dire.

Most critically, one of Anacletus’ clones was dead. An imperfect clone, he had apparently gone somewhat tentacular at a bad moment, and a beam of light from the Husk of the dead god had incinerated him. It had been a small miracle that Anacletus had been present (or perhaps, his presence had spurned Bouvethoth to take a risk), but in any case Anacletus himself had been forced to stand in with his other clones, joining in his power to stem the tide. This moment of weakness had nearly been fatal, and had allowed Bouvethoth to flex his power.

He had summoned two score of hideous dog-men, part pit-bull and part man, who were now infesting the cavern. Noirtier had set up near Anacletus and his clones, and was holding off the attackers with his mace and shield valiantly, delivering many sound thwacks to the head which sent dog-men tumbling. The dog-men were whining at him and circling, much like pit-bulls that cannot eat a toddler, and Noirtier was battered and bruised. We was in peril of being overrun.

Sensing victory, Bouvethoth raised his arms, and another dozen dog-men appeared, their twisted silhouettes advancing from Bouvethoth’s side and heading towards Noirtier. This many, coupled with the others, was sure to overwhelm the stout Man-At-Arms.

“Quickly, John!” Archibald exclaimed. “We must assist him!”

John, Pasha, and Archibald made their way across the black waters in the raft although La Creatura simply crossed the waters by…floating?…with Martin on her back. They arrived just as the pit bull men were preparing to deliver many, ‘oh but he’s never acted like this before’ magnitude bites upon Noirtier and crashed into the dog-men from behind.

Archibald and Martin were both great swordsmen, and John was able to play his part well enough, slaying one dog-man outright with a sword stab in the gut. Pasha was skilled at making things bleed, and La Creatura…La Creatura ate thirteen dog-men. And it was not a pleasant eating, either, but a rather violent and nightmarish experience that made the rest of the dog-men retreat, yipping, into the shadows beyond their master.

“They are gone,” Archibald said, wiping the blood and sweat from his bald, bloodied forehead with a sigh of relief.

“Aye, but they’ll be back,” Noirtier said, taking in deep breaths. Pasha tended to his wounds, and for once luck was on their side, for they knit shut.

“Yes, they will return,” John agreed. “But for now, let us make sure Uncle Anacletus is alright. If there is anything he needs, we must get it for him, for Bouvethoth must be kept at bay.”

John went to his uncle’s side, careful not to venture in too close to the queer lights and intense energy of the ongoing wizard’s duel. The sorcerer was drenched in sweat, both his arms held outward, as the beam of the Anacletuses still fought and clawed its way against its opposite, towards a midpoint between the two interlocutors. But the beam was closer to them, and John read that as perilous.

“Uncle…how are you?” John asked.

“…Busy…” his uncle grimaced. He never took his eyes off the beams of light, and all his concentration was in them. “Dazed…reeling…about to break…”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“The…orb…” Anacletus said with difficulty.

“I know, Uncle,” John said. “I know. Just sit tight…we have our teams getting them now.”

“…the orb…”

“It’s coming, I promise,” John said. He turned away with a sigh. “While we await the orb, we shall need to post guards to protect Anacletus in case those dog-men return.”

“UEEEEAAAGH!” La Creatura shouted, and John understood her. He shook his head at her suggestion.

“I’m not going to have you on watch 24 hours a day, alone,” John replied.

“Out of the question,” Martin echoed.

“UEEEAAAGH!”

“I know you don’t need sleep, but it’s still too much to ask of you,” Martin countered.

“We’ll create a watch cycle,” John said. “With the newly arrived soldiers from Lady DeBoerg, we can put people here to keep an eye on Uncle Anacletus, until the Orb arrives.”

“The…orb…” Anacletus echoed.

“It’ll be here, Uncle. Reynauld and Dismas have never let us down,” John reassured.

John phrased it that way, but he knew – as did the others – that Reynauld and Dismas were not in charge of recovering the Ponderous Orb. That task had fallen onto Patrick and Albert.

And their track record, as has already been established, was not so good.

* * *

The double doors to the Royal Workshop opened, and the King’s brightly-colored servant beckoned Fanny and Nicolette inside. The clanging of hammers and the roar of flames played a music of industry, while nostrils filled with the smell of smoke and lungs filled with the heated air from the blazing orange furnaces. Over it all was the hymn of deep voices, the chanting of the men and shortstacks of rock and stone. Nicolette fanned herself as she entered, panting like a dog even though she had human sweat glands. The heat was somewhat refreshing to Fanny, in its way, reminding her of a home which wasn’t home. There was something quite comfortable about a nice desert, she mused. When all this business was settled and John was safe and sound, she would get a nice palace at an oasis in the Orient, a place where she could strip her young artist naked and keep him as a slave, have him feed her grapes while she showered his lips with kisses…

She mused, yet again, that she should have just taken him that night. How much irritation and bother would have been saved! But then again, what exactly would have happened beneath the earth? Was John’s presence underground essential?

At least word had come from Travis. John was safe, as was Martin, and as was Martins new devil-bitch wife. That last bit was unfortunate, but probably for the best, Fanny thought. There was some kind of disruption beneath the Hamlet, something about a creature called ‘Bouvethoth’, which Travis did not understand. John had said little to Travis of it, and seemed inclined not to discuss it. Fanny surmised it was the shadowy evil which John had mentioned in his letters. Whatever it was, John’s mood was not pleased, and that made Fanny nervous. It was enough to convince her that her choices with Archousa and the Heart were correct. And with the Rushworths.

The Rushworths mamono had all arrived, and were situated at Fanny’s Hotel. They were eager to get underway, for both Lady Rushworth and her daughter had wanted to go directly to Darkest Estate, but Fanny had been forced to insist that they come here first, and that they were to bring the two Alessas.

In truth, while a Salamander and Sahaugin were welcome for their combat skill, it was the Alessas that Fanny needed. Fate had provided for her all the materials for a weapon, the way that a hunting lodge might furnish all the materials to fire a musket. It was up to her to fit them all together. Archousa, the Alessas, and the Heart of Hyperborea. They all just needed to be assembled, and that was why she was here, at the workshop.

The workshop was full of stout men and their dwarf wives. Both men and dwarves were glistening with sweat, working at anvils upon heated metal or at the bellows to stoke the flames ever hotter. Esther Stonehearth, the chief of the Royal Forge, was taking a moment to sip from a tankard of ale, giving herself a beard of froth, before she licked it all up with a sweep of her pink tongue. She was a powerfully built little shortstack with wide hips and large breasts, her golden hair up and behind a ragged bandana. She had a sturdy frame with large muscles, which were stained wet with sweat and covered by dark specs of ash and bits of metal. Putting down the tankard, she gave her tall husband, a burly Northman named Arnuff, a hug, then waddled over to a stepstool near an anvil. Taking up a hammer and tongs, she grasped up a rod of glowing metal and set to working on it.

The King’s servant moved to get the Dwarf’s attention, but Fanny held him back while she watched the Royal blacksmith at her work. She worked quickly and deftly, shaping the bar to some unknown purpose, before taking the glowing metal in her tongs and, with no reservation of fear, plunging it into a barrel of oil. The flame hissed, and Esther withdrew the metal, cooled, and slick. She looked over, and saw the spectators.

“Oh my! Lady DeBoerg!” Esther exclaimed. She put down her hammer and tongs, then wiped her hands on her apron. She looked about the smithy with alarm, as if it were a messy house. “F-forgive the shabbiness of the smithy, My Lady! I was not informed…”

“Do not apologize, Mrs. Stonehearth; your workshop is well-kept and quite impressive. I came straight from the King,” Lady DeBoerg said. She motioned to the King’s servant, who stepped forward with a scroll, which Esther took. “You will be working for me for the next few days.”

Esther took and opened the scroll, giving it a cursory look before handing it to her husband, who scanned it more thoroughly. “As you say, Ma’am. This is my husband, Arnuff. What can we do for you?”

“You have ten of the new Windraper repeating rifles. I would like you to fabricate ten more, in two days,” she said.

“Easy enough,” Esther replied, wiping her hands. “We have five well underway for the naval evaluation.”

“And there is one other thing,” Fanny said. “A special project.”

Esther tilted her head. “Well, I’m definitely not all legs, but I’m all ears, Your Ladyship. What’s the job? A new sword? An armored carriage?

“Both, in a sense. You are familiar with the Archousa statue?”

Esther visibly suppressed the urge to laugh with good cheer in front of a noble woman. Fanny greatly appreciated this gesture, as she distrusted when commoners engaged in too much merriment. Instead, the dwarf smirked in a way which was fetching. “I grew up at the intersection of Crumpet and Starving streets, ma’am. I knew Archousa’s face better than my own growing up.”

“Then you are aware that the statue is hollow. There is a socket for a gem within, a large gem which must be fitted with the utmost care. A gem known as the Heart of Hyperborea.”

Esther looked to her husband Arnuff for a moment. “I knew she was hollow, but I didn’t know about any socket inside. Oh, I do enjoy gemcrafting! Do you have this Heart of Hyperborea?”

Fanny nodded, motioning to Nicolette. “It is in that chest. I must caution you, the gemstone has a powerful effect upon people,” she said.

“I can imagine it would,” Esther said. “May I see it?”

Fanny hesitated a moment. Dwarves were known for being somewhat…overwhelmed by pretty gems, but it was necessary for her to see it. “You are certain you will be okay?”

Esther did laugh at this, a pleasant enough sound that made her body shake. It was infectious enough that it took all of Fanny’s blue blooded poise to keep from smirking. “My Lady, the conceit that Dwarves are crazed maniacs lusting for treasure is a stereotype. Keep in mind, I was a Human girl, same as you, and aside from liking jewelry as much as the next gal, I have always favored steel. I can control myself, I assure you.”

Fanny took the key in hand. She signaled to Nicolette, and unlocked the chest. shutting her eyes again, Nicolette opened the chest, bathing the forge in the prismatic glow of its contents.

Esther was a good woman, a woman with a soul as golden as her hair, who had never spoken a cross word without good cause, and who had been kindly to all. And so to see the effect of the Heart of Hyperborea upon her was to see the effect of greed upon a dwarf. It was instant, and terrifying. Wild-eyed, Esther lunged at the chest with a frenzy that was so sudden and so alarming that both Fanny and Nicolette leapt backward with loud yelps. Fanny had considered it a possibility that the Dwarf may have a covetous reaction -hence her warning – but Esther went beyond even her calculations. The potent shortstack lunged for the chest, screaming at the top of her lungs, and forcing Nicolette to lift it high above her head, out of the reach of the Dwarf.

Nicolette was strong, but so was Esther, and the Dwarf made as ferocious an attempt as anyone to get Nicolette to tumble to earth. Though she yelped, the kobold held her ground, stubbornly holding and keeping the exposed gem out of Esther’s reach. The blacksmith, meanwhile, raved about ancients and mountains and shiny, shiny gems.

Arnuff stepped forward, grasping up his feisty Dwarf woman and lifting her into the air, as other Dwarves and attendants rushed to restrain her. It was much like trying to lift a Pit Bull as it was about to feast upon a toddler. She kicked and screamed in the air, with quite a few unfocused blows landing upon all of those around her, sending people back with oaths and curses. One unfortunate kick landed between Arnuff’s legs, and he yelped, dropping her and doubling over.

The sound of her husband’s cry snapped Esther out of her mania, and she turned back to her husband with a yelp louder than his.

“Oh sweetie!” She exclaimed, grasping at the only gems more precious to her than the Heart of Hyperborea. “I’m so sorry! It was an accident…”

“Grrrmph…” Arnuff announced. He looked up, his eyes crossed, as Esther began to frantically dote upon him with kisses and rubs.

Nicolette shut the chest, and latched it, still holding it up above her head and staring at Esther warily. Fanny fitted the key into the lock and latched it, just to be safe. Esther was inconsolable until she was assured her husband had recovered. Arnuff winked at Fanny when his wife finally calmed down, and she guessed that his injury had been somewhat feigned to get his passionate dwarf to calm down.

“You…you are right, My Lady,” Esther said, panting. “I-I never expected such a reaction, but the gem’s beauty is overpowering…”

“I need your help in the setting of the gem, Mrs. Stonehearth,” Fanny said. “I fear a less skilled hand may cause disaster. But I need to know if you can control yourself.”

Esther nodded. She looked over at Nicolette, who was still staring at her with narrowed eyes. “Let me see it again,” the Dwarf said, taking a deep breath.

Nicolette cast an inquisitive look to Fanny, and Fanny again unlocked the chest. Nicolette took a deep breath, and unclasped the lock again, bathing the room in the brilliant light of the mystic gem.

* * *

“Now!” John yelled, signaling to the cauldrons along the walls. The redcoats – in what was left of their red coats, anyways – tipped the cauldrons, to the squeals and howls of indignation from the assemblage of horribles below, burned and scalded by the hot liquids. Lepers and others launched flaming arrows into the enemy force, and the flames roared as the beasts screamed and died. John yawned. He had not slept in at least two days. He knew that he should, for they were in a relative lull right now, but the knowledge of what was beneath the Hamlet made sleep almost impossible.

John watched the flaming carnage beneath him the way other men would watch burning logs at a campsite, ruminating on the situation. The Ochre Hellebore was propped up on a chair, with Lotte massaging his temples as he stared bitterly at the Hamlet and its walls. It was hardly a mighty stronghold; but for the ferocity of its defenders, it would have fallen to the enemy. But yet it still stood, delaying his plans, stymying his efforts.

Colonel Travis had settled in to the fighting, although clearly the twisted nature of the Darkest Estate was affecting him, and his troops. There was an irritating amount of vomit on the catwalks and in the towers, although it was considerably better, John mused, than blood. They could still shoot straight, and did reasonably well in using their bayonets or knives. Their presence, while not enough to drive away the army, was enough to give it a hard time. The attacks on the walls were all simple probing assaults, stepping forward to test the defenses at various points around the Hamlet. The real battle was below, between Bouvethoth, powered by the husk of a dead god, and Anacletus, powered by his arcane knowledge. The fight was unfair, and John knew Anacletus was destined to lose.

All hinged on the groups who were out searching for the Ponderous Orb. John hoped they would return, soon. But in the meantime, he had taken steps. He had sent the Houndsman Danglars out with his Wolfhound, the faithful Pharaon, to see if he could find any trace, or whereabouts, of the two parties. It was all he dared to do, for he needed everyone else to defend the Hamlet, and Danglars was a sensible man.

He came upon Colonel Travis, waist deep in large, dead mosquitos from the Blood Court, and vomit. The guards near him were retching over the wall, and Travis himself had puked so much that tears were streaming down his face. It was a terrible smell, but years of serving Albert and Patrick had given John a high tolerance to putrefaction.

“How are you holding up, Colonel?” John asked, unfurling a pocket square and handing it to the Anglars Officer.

“That-that wasn’t so bad,” Colonel Travis said, taking the pocket square and wiping his mouth of vomit. His skin was pale, and clammy, and his hands trembled. “I just wish those damned…damned mosquitos weren’t so…so…”

Travis swallowed, trembling, he was about to lose himself yet again, John knew, and so John took him by the arm.

“Why don’t we take a walk, Colonel,” he said. “Get some fresh air – or air as fresh as this massive cavern beneath the earth can give us. I am going to go see Captain L’Ever, to see how he is feeling today.”

Travis nodded, and on unsteady feet he sluiced through the thick carcasses and putrid bodies. Together they stepped out of and over the carnage, and walked along the walls to the high tower overlooking the pass to the Cove. Colonel Travis was greatly improved after a few steps, a testament to his stoicism and constitution. “In many ways, it reminds me of my days in Idia,” he said dryly. “The mosquitos were smaller there, but only just smaller, and the smell wasn’t quite so bad. But I did puke about the same.”

“And have you been in sieges before, Colonel?” John asked.

“In a few,” he replied. “Nothing quite like this. The enemy here is…different.”

John laughed. “That is one way of putting it.”

“I’ve had a few men crack before, but not this many,” Travis said. “That one strange man who attacked us earlier today, the one in the stocks with his eyes put out…he started telling all the men their futures, but all the gruesome fates that awaited them…it made them lose it. I had to have them put cotton in their ears. It doesn’t even seem like it is a big deal around here.”

“Which part?” John asked.

“All of it? What can be done about the men who have lost their sanity?” Travis asked.

John shrugged. “Well just send them to the whipping room. Fixes people right up.,” he said. “A few hours of scourges really melts away stress.”

“Amazing…” Travis replied. “S-should I go?”

“If you have to ask, then no,” John replied. “People will let you know. Unless we all go nuts, but if that happens we just whip random people…”

“Have you ever needed it?” Travis asked.

John frowned. “I haven’t, in fact,” he replied. “But then, to be fair, I have had an exposure to a great amount of bizarre lore in my schooling, which I consider like an inoculation the same way that Holstaur milk inoculates against the Pox. I also had good training as a servant of the Rushworths, in doing disquieting and unsavory tasks. Plus, I also have never gone out on some of the more…gruesome missions.”

They arrived at the tower stairs, and walked up the spiral to the topmost room. Two portholes were on either sides of a bed, in which Captain L’Ever lay, drenched in sweat and with circles under his eyes. Despite his rough condition, he smiled when he saw John and Colonel Travis. Aunt Norris was in the room, also, sitting on a small stool and looking out the porthole at the enemy forces.

“John, Miles!” Captain L’Ever called, before coughing a phlegmatic cough into his fist. “Good to see ye both. I saw the fightin’ from the window, was a valiant effort by our boys. The Regiment done well, Miles. They’re good boys, always knew it.”

“They are,” Travis said with pride. “And how are you feeling, Ed?”

“I be feeling better by the hour,” Captain L’Ever said, smiling weakly. “At the very least, I knocked the Ochre Hellebore down a peg, didn’t I?”

John nodded, aware the eyes of his Aunt Norris were burning into his back. “It’ll be a while before he is back in the fight,” he said.

“It should have been forever,” Aunt Norris snapped. “You could have ended it, John. Why didn’t you?”

Colonel Travis looked between them quizzically. “Ended it?”

“The Ochre Hellebore was wounded. Brought low, and driven into the mud,” John replied. “His hag came, and healed him. I could have shot her, to stop it, but I didn’t.”

“Would you have done it, Colonel?” Aunt Norris asked.

Travis’ face, already pale, somehow became whiter, and his eyes told a story of terrible, terrible guilt. John guessed that in Idia, things had happened, orders been given, and blood shed. “I will not fault a man for taking his finger from the trigger, on the hope that man does not fault me for pulling it,” he said quietly, almost as a prayer of forgiveness.

In that moment John and Colonel Travis understood the decision, the weight, and the regret. They shared it, even if they took different paths.

“It doesn’t matter now,” John said, his heart nonetheless wracked with bitter doubts. “I did not end it, and we shall all bear the consequences of my decision. If I were a better man, perhaps I would have shot him. Perhaps I would not. But the past is the past.”

“But every person who-“

“Miz Norris,” Captain L’Ever said, touching his brow as if to tap a cap. “Be kindly to yer nephew. He’s got a heart o’ gold, that one. Did his best to save as many cripples as he could. I wouldn’t fault ‘im for not shooting the Hellebore’s wife. I’ve done some unsavory acts in my day, and I say this: if the lord ever graces me with a son, I hope his hands be clean, and he don’t keep washin’ ’em to try to make the stains disappear.”

Aunt Norris made a face, but strangely the words of the Captain seemed to sway her. For his part, Travis was quiet, lost in his own thoughts. “Well…I’ll give it some thought. At any rate, I think we should set to making more of that potion.”

John saw the wisdom in that, but he cast a fearful glance at Aunt Norris’ chest. She had taken to a disturbing new trend of wearing low-cut dresses. “D-didn’t Fong Dao say we need to get that curious substance called Humanity?”

“An odd name,” Travis said. “How can one ‘get’ Humanity?”

“As Fong Dao explained it to me, you either kill someone to take it with a cracked eye orb, or you help someone with a soapstone,” Aunt Norris said. “We have a lot of those cracked eye orbs.”

“It would be an advantage to have that,” Travis said. “If it can restore life, as you say, then the benefits would be enormous. Not just to bring back soldiers, but the men will fight harder if they believe they can come back to life with a potion.”

John nodded. “I have someone who might be able to help us. At any rate, it appears that you are growing stronger, Captain.”

“Aye!” Captain L’Ever laughed. “I’ll be back up soon enough. I feel almost good enough to rise now…”

The old sailor began to sit up, but Aunt Norris pressed him back down. “Enough of that, Captain,” she said, sharply. “You need your rest. Fong Dao said you needed a day for every minute you were dead. That’s four days by my reckoning, and by the way you are soaking those sheets with sweat, that’s not a moment too soon.”

Captain L’Ever settled back down, laughing until he began to cough. “Ahh ye old ninny, ye have been good to me. I owe ye much for savin’ me life…”

“Well…pshaw,” Aunt Norris said, and John thought he saw a flush of color in her old face. His shudder was audible.

“We should let you recover, Edouard,” Colonel Travis said, mercifully, as an out to leave the room. He touched a hand to his cap. “Farewell, Madam.”

Aunt Norris curtsied.

“Farewell, me hearties. Try not to be killin’ all the beasties without me!” Captain L’Ever called with a cough.

“There’s no worry of that, I assure you,” John said with a laugh. “We’ll make sure we leave you with at least one.”

John traveled down from Captain L’Ever’s room in the high tower. Colonel Travis went back to the wall to do a patrol of the defenses. Much of the carnage and gore was cleared away, and he walked on the bare catwalk. Travis went counterclockwise, while John went clockwise, searching for someone. Aunt Norris had a point. They could use some magic, like the Humanity, and there was one person John was sure could help them get it.

Gerard the Bounty Hunter was sitting on the wall, his feet dangling down on the side facing inward to the town, idly carving at a stick and whistling. His witch wife was in the courtyard, mixing a pot of bubbling swamp gas and water to make more cauldron fuel to scald the attackers. They were making kissy-face at each other as John drew near. Gerard sat up at the approach of his boss.

“Gerard,” John said with a nod, clearing his throat. The Bounty Hunter bowed his head in a mute sign of respect.

“So, as you are aware, we saved Captain L’Ever’s life with a…well, a special potion,” John said, adjusting with discomfort.

Gerard cleared his throat.

“Well, if we want to make more, we need a substance called, curiously enough, Humanity…”

Gerard nodded knowingly, and after touching a finger to his nose and pointing the other at John, he disappeared down the wall for a moment. John frowned, but a moment later Gerard returned, or at least, John guessed it was him. The Bounty Hunter had stripped down to his underwear, a brown rag-diaper that looked as if it had been stained in grime and mud. He bore a long, curved club, like a fang but yet held by the point to bludgeon with the wide top. But even this ridiculously sized club – and it was ridiculous – was not the most striking thing about Gerard’s new accoutrements. For he bore, improbably on his head, a dead Mimic corpse. The toothy mouth set in a wooden chest clattered open and shut as he moved about, the long tongue flopping in the air like a tie.

“Um…” John began, standing before the gloriously outfitted warrior. “Is…is this your Humanity gathering gear?”

Gerard nodded, making the Mimic helmet snap open and shut like a happy clam. He held out his hand expectantly, and after a minute to register what he wanted, John placed a Cracked Eye Orb into the Bounty Hunter’s palm. Resting the massive club on his shoulder, Gerard snorted at John, and then his form darkened into shadow. A red light suffused his body, and he disappeared from sight. John wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Bounty Hunter’s alacrity, but he hoped he would return with a substantial amount of that precious Humanity. All he knew for certain was that when Humanity was gathered, the necessary milk for the potion would not be drawn from Aunt Norris, despite her low cut dress.

He was interrupted by a familiar bark, and the sight of Pharaon racing toward him, tail wagging and tongue out in happy panting.

“Pharaon!” John exclaimed, petting down the happy pup. He looked up at his master in his approach. Danglars was a man with a thick orange beard and strong features. He walked with a stoic face, his body smeared with mud. His countenance did not bode well for good tidings.

“Danglars,” John called. “You have some report? Have you made contact?”

“I believe I saw them, milord,” Danglars said, calling John by that title he felt no right to have. “The way out is heavily guarded. The enemy is pushing into the Cove, fortifying the passages, but I saw a cart filled with gold tottering its way towards the Cove. It was attempting to break through, under heavy assault.”

John sighed with exasperation as Pharaon licked his hand. “My damned family and their lust for gold…” he muttered. “I hope they don’t get themselves killed. What of my cousins, Danglars? Did you see them?”

“Nay, milord, but then I could not get close enough. I saw only the cart, and heard the reports of Dismas’ pistols, and the clanging of swords to mark their passage. If your cousins were behind, I saw no sign of them.”

“Did you signal to Reynauld, or Dismas?”

Danglars shook his head, and his slightly shaggy hair waved back and forth. “I was too far away. I tried to reach them, but there was no safe crossing. I was nearly overwhelmed in the tunnels, for fish men had begun to venture into our tunnels seeking us.”

“Are the smuggler’s paths compromised, then?” John asked.

“Nay, though not for their lack of trying. But the paths are too numerous and labyrinthine, and Frank is keeping them well cleaned of intruders. But faith! There was nearly no way to cross in the Cove itself. And milord, I have graver news, still…” he sighed. “There is something else…”

John looked up from the adoring face of Pharaon, after the latter licked his nose. Danglars looked concerned.

“They are blockading the path to the Seal,” Danglars said. “I saw the cultists and their madmen in the act of fortifying the pass. And beyond, I saw cranes in the distance.”

“Cranes?” John asked.

“The Giants were working at them. They were moving tremendous stones.”

“Maybe to make a wall?” John asked.

“If it’s for a wall, they are not troubling to move the stones very far,” John said

“Aye, milord,” Danglars said.

John nodded, gravely. He scratched Pharaon behind the ear, enjoying the dog’s grunting and the way he leaned into his hand. “I thought that they might,” he said. “We shall have to orchestrate an assault. I only hope Pomb is worth it, when we get there. But all of this is nothing, if the others do not return soon.”

Danglars bowed his head, showing his orange hair in the light. “I’m sorry milord. I can try again…”

John gave Pharaon a final scratch, then stood. “No,” he said at last. “If the way is too dangerous out, I will not risk you in crossing. It is up to Dismas and Reynauld to get closer. But you and Pharaon should go with Frank. Wait there, and be prepared to offer assistance if it is needed in their crossing.”

“I will,” Danglars replied. “I’ll leave at once.”

“Take some time to resupply, rest…”

“There will be no time for the teams outside,” Danglars said. “I came back merely to report my progress. I will go and watch, and wait.

Danglars whistled, and Pharaon was instantly at his side, instantly the fierce attack dog that John knew he truly was. The houndmaster and his loyal pup walked at a relaxed pace to the caverns, to the pathways into the smuggler caves. Danglars brought mixed tidings. He wished that he had pushed back more on the foolhardy and greedy plan to gather treasure. What good was all the treasure in the world, if Bouvethoth overwhelmed them?

He could only wait, and pray that Albert and Patrick found the Orb.

* * *

The interior of the Archousa statue was like the inside of a steamboat, like being in the tower of one of the newer metal naval vessels. Viewing holes of clear quartz were in the surface at intervals, corresponding to the crown atop Archousa’s head. Sunbeams bathed the floor, and yet despite that the air was cool like a winter night. As she breathed, Fanny even could see her breath. The crown of Archousa was a small room atop a stone spiral staircase which rose from the torso of Archousa all the way up to her head.

Archousa was a statue of a woman, but a woman of unusual dimensions. She had no mouth, a feminine yet featureless face, and long arms which almost dragged upon the ground. The statue was comely according to men, but definitely quite unorthodox in its proportions.

This room atop the statue was a small space, but there was room enough for a group of ten to stand. The statue was mostly solid, but some sections around the torso (and here, atop her head,) were hollowed out so that soldiers could travel inside her. In front of the spiral staircase were two stone chairs, facing towards each other, with a great spire of obsidian dangling between them. So out of place was this black spike that to stare upon it for too long was apt to cause alarm, and Fanny sometimes believed she saw it wriggling, like some great blood-filled leech.

Nicolette was rubbing her arms as she looked about with interest. Several Dwarves were combing over ever section of the stone statue, working to sweep and clean it of cobwebs, and checking to make sure there were no cracks or fissures. There weren’t any that could be found.

Down the spiral staircase, at about the center of Archousa’s chest, near where the heart should be, was the socket for the Heart of Hyperborea. Esther was laboring there now, working at mounting the great gem. After her initial bout of Dwarvish covetousness, Esther had settled in with excitement to the great joy of restoring the mighty statue. Fanny could hear the delicate tapping of Esther’s hammer.

Lady Rushworth and her eldest daughter Maria were with the troops outside, mustering and preparing to lead them against the forces of the enemy. The younger daughters, the Alessas, who were Alarunes, were with Fanny. They stood near each other, looking out the window with the innocent wonder of maidens. Their leafy plant base had been placed in this chamber, for they were critical to Fanny’s plans.

It had not been easy to convince Desiree Rushworth to allow her young daughters to come on the mission. In fact, Desiree Rushworth was annoyed by Fanny. Never so much as to be openly contemptuous – that would be tremendously unwise – but she was concerned for her husband, and had made several intimations that if he or her sons were hurt, Fanny would be blamed. This did not do much to intimidate the blue blooded desert wolf, but it did make her wary, which was tremendously dangerous for Lady Rushworth.

All the same, Fanny first reassured Lady Rushworth that she was quite fond of her daughters, and wanted no harm to come to them. This had the added benefit of being very true. In fact, they would be the safest of anyone in all of this adventure. She also noted John’s concerns, and the threat to the Monarchy, which was very difficult for a patriotic woman to resist. Lastly, she played on the Salamander desire for combat, and convinced her that her daughters had the potential to be great warriors. That had been enough to purchase her consent to the scheme.

“It certainly is an impressive view here!” Dark Alessa exclaimed. Light Alessa enthusiastically nodded in agreement with her doppelganger’s point. “And you say it will actually fly?”

“Not fly, hover,” Fanny said. “When the Heart of Hyperborea is installed, the statue will fly.”

“One thing I don’t understand…” Nicolette began, her brow furrowed in a way which Fanny was sure would be adorable to any man. “How did the Heart wind up buried in a coal mine?”

“This Heart is a new heart,” Fanny said.

“Oh…” Nicolette said, still looking confused. Fanny smiled a little, and continued.

“The Heart of Hyperborea is a name given to the gem when it is installed in Archousa, and I believe it has not always been the same gem. We know other gems like this one have been found: there is a legendary gem of great brilliance in the court of Phamneyes, in Saim, known as the God’s Eye. The Shahs of Saim have fought many wars to keep the stone, so that it is said to weep tears of blood, and is hidden from all sight save that of the Imperial family. And there is the legendary GhostStone of Samhaiden, which was lost when Oylskia had its succession crisis. And there are legends of the Raj stone of Idia, which was tossed into the ocean by the last Princess of Tugh. All of these gems are described as causing the same reactions as the gem which we hold – madness, lust, and mania. All are said to glow with their own light, though the colors are as varied as can be imagined. In Idia, they believe that all the great mountains have a Heartstone, a gem which represents the character of the mountain, buried as deep beneath the earth as the mountain rises above it. Such gems are rarely unearthed, and the first recovered – and thus the one placed into Archousa – was the so-called Heart of Hyperborea, which the ancients believed was unique. If I had to guess, the first Heart was unearthed in the chambers beneath the Darkest Estate, for they go deeper than any others.”

Nicolette listened quietly. “So then any of these gems could power the Archousa?”

“It is all but a certainty,” Fanny said.

“All but?” Nicolette asked. “What if it isn’t?”

“If not, I’ll sell the gem to my nephew, and buy a few ironclads from Cronides,” Fanny said. “The Ironclads will at least be able to secure a possible escape route should things go south. My plan initially was to purchase them to begin to conduct a search for the Empress, but then I got that letter from John.”

“It is a very nice statue,” Light Alessa said, running her hand over one of the chairs. “I – we- have seen it many times, but never seen from the inside.”

“Never this close,” Dark Alessa added.

“But what is our part in all of this?” Light Alessa asked.

“You say we must control the statue but certainly there must be people better than us for such a task,” Dark Alessa said.

“We are not great warriors, we are mere maidens,” Light Alessa continued.

“You are not mere maidens, not in the slightest. You are both accomplished girls, and that is what is most needed. In order to power Archousa, Two must become One,” Fanny said. She pointed to the two stone chairs, which the plant base of the Alessas nestled between. “And so, the very best people to control the Archousa are the Two who came from One. It’s control is not so different than the pianoforte that you play, and its powers are not so different than the songs that you sing. I have often been agnostic on the concept of Providence, but your existence at this hour makes this weapon’s easy usage possible.”

The two Alessas looked to each other. “What must we do?”

“When the installation of the gem is finished, sit in the stone chairs. We will ignite the gem, and you will be fused into one consciousness,” Fanny said.

The two Alessas looked at each other fearfully. “T-that won’t be permanent, will it?” Dark Alessa asked.

“It shouldn’t be,” Fanny said. “The controllers were never described as having fused, when the statue was powered down.”

The Alessas held hands. “Then we will do it,” they said in unison.

Fanny smiled. “I knew you would. You are good girls.”

* * *

John sighed. The Ochre Hellebore was flipping him off.

Even from this distance, John could make out the unmistakable ultimate hand gesture of a man perturbed. The yellow swordsman was obviously still unhappy about having been thrown off the town walls, and the way he nursed the jug, he was still in a lot of pain. But he was far more spry, and limber, than he had been even a day earlier. He would be on his feet soon, and John feared the defense would be in a lot of trouble.

At least Captain L’Ever was recovering nicely. He was just getting onto his feet again, and could walk with a crutch. This only enhanced his eagerness to see either of the two groups that had been sent out. But could they even make it past the enemy armies? If anyone could, it was them, but could

“He seems upset,” Travis said.

“He shouldn’t be flipping you off though,” Aunt Norris snapped. “You saved his life…HE SAVED YOUR LIFE!” she turned, shouting across the expanse. “He should have shot you, and your little swamp muffin!”

Hearing the threat against her beau, and herself described as a bog confection, Lotte stepped forward, blocking her husband, and began unleashing a series of profane hand gestures that were so vulgar that John raised an arm to block his eyes. Aunt Norris had to be physically restrained from jumping down from the tower, screaming at the top of her lungs that she was going to kill the tiny hag. She was taken by one of the soldiers and lifted, kicking and screaming, out of sight.

Lotte, also, was forcibly withdrawn, leaving the miserable and sickly Ochre Hellebore to stare at John from his lawn chair. The malevolent force that had been in his eyes seemed stronger now, almost overpowering, and the dark circles beneath his eyes were like cuts in the void. The Ochre Hellebore’s body was healing, but his mind was not recovered. He was weaker now than before, and the whispers of Bouvethoth now seemed to be screaming in rage within his mind.

The Ochre Hellebore coughed, then pointed weakly with his finger. A stocky, somewhat overweight figure stepped forward. Despite his girth, he was fearsome, like a Viking or a Hun, or some other kind of swarthy raider from savage frontiers. He was shirtless and wearing a jet black animal pelt around his shoulders like a cloak. Near him, and in some ways opposite to the large and primal figure, was a tall, lean, wraithlike thing with dirty greenish skin and sharpened fangs. John’s blood boiled to see this lieutenant, for he was known to him, and quite loathsome.

“Al sudar Hafts te oooda!” The stocky man yelled, hefting a massive two-handed axe above his head. If John had not recognized him by sight, then he would have by voice. John growled, and cursed to himself at his lack of fortune.

“I was hoping he would not become involved in this,” John said in a grim tone.

“That unkempt looking man?” Travis asked, looking out beyond the wall at the burly wolf-pelt wearing maniac. “He looks like some barbarian from the Lost Age.”

“That’s MacBlart,” John said, spitting. “He’s a wilding. He controls a group of brigands and cultists from the frostplains. I did not think he would join forces with the Ochre Hellebore, but apparently Bouvethoth is more persuasive than I thought.”

Aunt Norris, who had calmed down, walked up alongside the Colonel, and with a curled lip, she stared at the green-skinned man. “What is that gangly creature, the one near MacBlart?”

John growled as he contemplated his nemesis. The Wraith-man returned his gaze, and bared his sharpened little spike like teeth. “Him…he has no name, at least not one that any Christian would dare to speak. I call him Skulk, and he is as vile as they come.”

“Skulk?”

“Yes. Skulk,” John said, his eyes burning with hatred as he looked at the misshapen, lumpy, oddly effeminate Skulk. The Weird rat-creature had done things so horrid that John did not like to contemplate him.

His focus was returned to the battlefield when MacBlart stepped forward, hefting his axe into the sky. The dull edge had enough sheen to flash a moment in the dim light. “Elsatz a Vakanda HAFTS TE OOOODA!” The warrior yelled. He looked back to his army, who were listening with confusion. The burly warrior raised his arms above his head like a conductor to an orchestra, and the army bayed and screamed like wolves and banshees.

“What in the devil is he saying?” Travis asked out loud.

John sighed. “He speaks total gibberish, and always has. The words he’s saying aren’t in any language. My mentor taught me the rudiments of the ancient tongues, enough to detect the cadence and the pronunciation of the old words. His speech sounds like an Anglar doing what he thinks Old Sacksony would sound like, but there are no discernable words in any of it. It’s all wrong. It’s babbling.”

“If it’s babbling, then how do any of the soldiers know what he wants?” Travis asked.

“He points, and shouts. None of his plans are particularly complicated, but despite his incoherence he is quite formidable, especially in single combat,” John said.

“Sir!” Smythe, John’s long-suffering assistant, yelled. “Reynauld and Dismas have returned with Danglars!”

John grinned, feeling a great wave of relief. He looked to Colonel Travis and Aunt Norris. “This is good news,” he explained. “I will go and see them, at once!”

A sideways glance showed that the Colonel saw Aunt Norris’ visible relief at the news, and so his eyes widened as he looked back and forth between John and his Aunt. And so John left them, and walked at a hurried pace to see his old friends. He was most eager for word on the location of his cousins.

Helouise, Reynauld, Dismas, and Mercedes had arrived through the secret hatch, the passageway in the cellar of the Dutch Wife. Danglars and Pharaon were already with them, having waited and guided them through the paths.

“Reynauld, Dismas!” John exclaimed, enthusiastically shaking hands with the two bloodied warriors. He looked them over closely. “I was beginning to fear that you would be stranded outside. Is the gold in the smuggler’s path?”

Reynauld and Dismas looked to each other. Mercedes blushed, and Helouise coughed. “We left it,” Reynauld said quietly.

“Left it?” John asked.

“Aye indeed, Squire,” Dismas said in a grave voice. “When it came to it, there was no way we could get it past the patrols.”

“The enemy is far greater concentrated than we had anticipated,” Reynauld said.

John had feared as much, after the grim report of Danglars. “My cousins…” John said, looking to the faces of his friends with worry. He had really only considered if they would return in time, but now a deeper dread was rising, that his kin, cousins he had lived with most of his life, may not return at all. “Any word?”

“We last saw them in the distance. We had cleared the way to the ship for them with no issue…” Reynauld began.

“Took a haul of plunder that you wouldn’t believe, boss!” Dismas said, gesticulating wildly. “We must’ve had fifty busts, a hundred deeds, two tons of gold…”

“But my cousins,” John insisted. “What about my cousins?”

“Well they entered the crashed ship as we were hauling away the treasure. Albert made us a sign before he went in; he rolled his eyes, then he did that thing where you make like you want a drink.” Dismas said, then demonstrated with his thumb and finger, tilting them in front of his masked mouth as if sipping a drink.

John grunted, and looked to the northeast, in the direction of the downed craft. Though obscured by the walls of the Hamlet and layers of earth, still he stared, and listened, as if perhaps to get some psychic indication of the location of his cousins. “It’s in their hands, now…” he intoned.

“There is more,” Reynauld said. He looked to Dismas, and the latter nodded in agreement. “We should go to the wall.”

John returned to his spot above the gate, where Colonel Travis still stood with Aunt Norris, watching the enemy army. MacBlart was still raving like a moonbeam-soaked wino, but Dismas pointed beyond him, at black shapes on the horizon.

“Do you see those cranes, in the distance?” Dismas asked.

John squinted. “Yes,” he said. “Danglars mentioned it, they are excavating stones. I assume they are planning to get dirt to try to build a ramp, or they are trying to tunnel under the walls.”

“Nay Squire; they are moving stones. Giant, massive stones. Those fungal giants are all over there, lifting these things with the cranes. We managed to get a closer look, and…”

“And it was like a tree rising, but of bone,” Reynauld said. “I do not lie or boast, and I say that when I saw that height of the giants.

“An arm, or a leg bone?”

“…a finger,” Dismas said. “A claw.”

“A finger?”

“At least eight feet long,” Reynauld said. “Tipped with a claw half that length. And others joined it. A hand began to rise, but the area it is buried in is massive.”

The walls of the Hamlet were forty feet high, tall enough to hold back the army, but any creature with claws that big would be able to easily step over such walls…

“How far are they from uncovering this thing?” John asked.

“It is beginning to stir, itself,” Dismas said. “Enough stones have moved…”

John rubbed his mouth. “Aside from its hand, we have no other data on it,” he said. “Anacletus never mentioned this thing.”

“Maybe they are in your uncle’s monstrosity book…” Aunt Norris said. “When I was looking through Anacletus’ library, for potions, there was a book with images of terrible things.”

“Were there any large bone giants?”

“Half the book was large bone giants. There was one thing…a drawing of a monstrous skeleton, covered in rotted fur, with a long obsidian beak and cold, black eyes. It was drawn near a farmhouse, but it barely reached past its shin. I recall it only because it was the most frightening thing in a book of frights.”

“You and I should go, and get that book,” John said. “Maybe we can find out what the hell it is that we are up against. Tell Smythe…”

“John,” Travis said, clearing his throat. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but it’s MacBlart…you said he commanded things by shouting, and pointing. He’s pointing at the walls right now. I think he’s getting ready to attack.”

The Colonel was right. The savage chieftain twirled, and flung his axe with all his might towards the hamlet. The swirling axe whistled in the air, and embedded into the wall below them. John swore he felt the thick walls tremble.

The frenzied army began to cheer, and shout vulgar oaths and profane pledges. They clanged together their weapons on their shields, they growled, hissed, gurgled, bayed, and howled. The terrifying army of freaks and demons was even more frenzied than it was under the Ochre Hellebore, for they were under one of their own now.

“Yes…” John said with a shudder. “As I said, his plans are not complicated.”

Although it did appear to become more complex than John had thought. Great catapults were wheeled to the front of the lines by skeletal soldiers, each dark bone face painted with the same grin of death.

“Catapults?” Travis asked. “What on earth are they planning with those? They have cannons, and the Hamlet’s earthworks are proof against those. Why would they bother with catapults, which could not hope to throw a mass at the velocity of the cannon?”

John’s nostrils flared as he inhaled the musty smell of death which came on the winds from the enemy army. There was only one reason, he knew, and it wasn’t to attack the walls.

John turned back to Aunt Norris. “The book shall have to wait, I fear: go, and tell Smythe to get the fire brigades ready,” he said.

Aunt Norris’ eyes widened as she looked to the catapults, and then to the thatched roofs of the Hamlet. She departed with a surprising amount of spring in her step. He guessed that the seriousness of the struggle had forced the old woman to focus as much competence as she could into her actions. As he watched her descend the platform, he looked over the Hamlet’s thatched roof huts himself. It was a canny move, to hurl flaming projectiles. Coupled with a full assault, it would split the attentions of the defenders and the walls may be overrun. Thank God his Lady DeBoerg had sent those troops..

Or, John thought, was MacBlart planning on something more insidious? There was plenty of putrid, diseased, and poison-laden material out beyond the Hamlet. Perhaps he was planning to fling some toxic projectiles in, let sickness take hold, then attack after a few days. It was certainly possible, if the war chief was thinking in terms of economy. In either case, John feared that MacBlart was more savvy than he had given him credit for.

But John would soon come to believe that he had overestimated MacBlart. Or perhaps, underestimated him. He watched with a furrowed brow as MacBlart climbed into one of the catapults, now armed with a truly titanic greatsword. The Chieftain leaned in a moment, watching as men of similar garb to himself – the Blart Guard – piled into the catapults down the line. Skulk, the vilest of the vile, was among them. Hags went down the line, administering…something…to these living missile men.

“He’s insane,” Travis said, rubbing his eyes. “I’d laugh, if this wasn’t such a stupid idea.”

“There’s no surprise,” Dismas said, tiredly. “He’s going to launch himself again.”

“He’s done this before?” John asked.

Reynauld nodded. “Before you arrived. He really wanted to get into the Dutch Wife. He made off with like three virgins tucked under his arms. He gave them back when he realized they were men…”

“What?”

“I mean, it’s pretty dark in the brothel…” Dismas explained.

He was cut off by MacBlart, who was shouting more absurd ancient language. He signaled with a guttural scream of blabbing nonsense, the skeletal crews manning the catapults pulled the levers, and the wooden arms rose with a howl of gears. The black-clad living projectiles rose into the sky in a great arc, rising like some shadow comets that whistled and traveled with the war cries of their masters. John watched, mouth open, as the warriors hurtled into the sky, bearing their greatswords pointed downward.

“They’re launching over the walls. Brace for impact!” John yelled down into the courtyard.

The Blart Guard fell like loosed arrows or launched javelins, shrieking in their descent. John heard a man below shout incoming, or perhaps he had shouted it himself, in that blur of time before the Blart Guard crashed.

But crash down they did, and the defenders scrambled to meet this new attack.

Back to Main Page

6 thoughts on “Pomp and Perspicacity, Chapter 7 – Anubis, Femdom, Darkest Dungeon

  1. I have to say writing is simply superb. I discovered your site around two weeks ago and have been spending that time reading your works. I’m rarely the type to comment but I have a question to ask.
    The FANDOM MGE Wiki has been deleted now, before that I read a fan-fic in the Bunyip section called ‘Day of The Snuggles: The Lakeside Visitor’ are you the author? Your ‘The Waters We Must Swim’ jogged my memory when I read about Ulysses River, I might be mistaken but your writing fits my memory of it. I remember a boat on the Ulysses River and a Bunyip in the waters.
    Or maybe ‘Serpentine Date!’ which was also in that section.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Do you who then? Or atleast places to search? I’m kinda new to MGE, the deletion of the Fandom Wiki kinda came out of nowhere, though I did find the new MGE Wiki but it’s limited no fanarts and no comments.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @NightPhoenixY Thanks man. Hope I’m not wasting your time here. Wouldn’t want to make others wait on my account.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure if you ever found them, but I found the two stories in the archives of the old wiki if you needed them:

      Lakeside visitor:

      https://web.archive.org/web/20211112102219mp_/https://monstergirlencyclopedia.fandom.com/f/p/4400000000000050742

      Serpentine Date:

      https://web.archive.org/web/20211112054257mp_/https://monstergirlencyclopedia.fandom.com/f/p/4400000000000071327

      It doesn’t look like the original author published anything else on his profile, and I couldn’t find that name on any of the usual sites for MGE fanfics so unless you found them through other means I don’t think they’ve written much else.

      Liked by 1 person

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