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Erebus
September 4th, 2001, 03:16 AM
Below is the latest edit of the complete story now. I've used a little of everyone's ideas, plus a few of my own, of course! http://www.sffworld.com/ubb/smile.gif

I look forward to your comments on the Discussion (http://www.sffworld.com/ubb/Forum5/HTML/000163.html) thread!


[This message has been edited by erebus (edited September 05, 2001).]

Erebus
September 4th, 2001, 03:17 AM
The Melancholy Imp

A collaborative story by members of the SFFWorld.com Writers' Forum

Prologue

Gnash had always been such a happy, somewhat mischievous imp. If there was ever laughter echoing around the capacious halls of the kingdom's palace, you could be sure in your belief that Gnash had started some sort of ruckus or practical joke.
His humor was legendary and unrivalled, at least it had been. Everything changed with the rising of the seventh moon this year. No longer was there fun and laughter in the kingdom. Instead, a feeling of unexplained sadness had overcome Gnash, descending across the kingdom like a veil of evil.

Part One - Herbs and Crisis

1.

"It can't be that bad."

Gnash had just hit his head on the top of the doorframe. He'd brushed against the edge of it to get around Neffer and the crossbeam had fallen on him. He stood there, rubbing it and looking up while Neffer parted his hair to appraise the damage, narrowly suppressing a giggle.

"How could I miss the fake edge!" growled Gnash. He picked up the linen he was carrying.

"It's just a cut. The healmaker will rub it away with some of his stinky gunk, and you're heading there anyway. Whoever set that one up must be trying to make you feel better?" Neffer giggled openly this time. She slapped Gnash's back. "Right?"
Gnash twisted by her with no comment. She grabbed his cloak and said, "Meet me in the library after dinner or next time it will be me!"

Neffer continued out to the river with a worried look on her face. She was heading to pick spices from the herbalist for dinner, but she decided she had enough time to stop in at the diviner's to ask him about Gnash.

***

Gnash stumbled down the hallway, rubbing his head while awkwardly balancing a bundle of linen. He'd skip the healmaker; not enough time as it was. Not enough time at all. The light from the window he was passing glistened off the fresh blood on his hand. He stopped, dropping the linen in shock as he glared at his bloody fingers. It reminded him of what was to come, and how he was powerless to stop it.

"Gnash! Pick that up this instant. What do you mean leaving my clean linens on the floor?"

"Sorry ma'am," Gnash bowed and rose, then bent again to retrieve the linens. "Just taking them--"

"Back to the laundry. I'll not have Her lying on filthy linens," said the parlor maid, pointing the way to the laundry.

A clever retort flash in his mind but was gone before he could grab it. He frowned. "Yes, ma'am." Another bow and he disappeared up the hall.

The parlor maid watched him go, the wicked grin on her face fading. When she was certain he was out of sight, she pulled the small package she was carrying from within her robes and cautiously headed down the hall after him. Stupid, she thought, I should have let him pass. Now I'll be delayed following him. And me late already. She clutched the package closer to her. The Diviner would know what it meant.

Gnash grumbled quietly to himself as he reached the laundry. None of the imps spared him a glance as he heaved the heavy linens up onto the shelf with a grunt, a sign of how tense things had become since the Patriarch had fallen ill.

Of course the fate of the Patriarch was hardly a daily concern of imps, but no citizen could shake the feeling that things had begun to decline when he took ill, and didn't show any sign of stopping. Even the King and Queen seemed lost nowadays. And whatever it was that had befallen the old man, they had better cure it soon or it seemed the whole land would suffer the results.

Finally relieved of his burden and thus deprived of the opportunity to dawdle, Gnash turned dutifully and headed off to the great hall to help with the dinner preparations, his head still throbbing.

Linala followed the imp as far as the laundry door to make sure he didn't try anything. Satisfied that the dirtied linen was indeed being rewashed she clutched her package tightly in one hand, picked up her skirts and ran.

Swishing past a number of servants and narrowly avoiding knocking the head butler clean over (for which he had awarded her one of his most disapproving glares) she landed outside the Diviner's study with only a few hairs out of place and a great deal less late than she would have been. She had gone to some trouble to get this appointment, and could not afford to be tardy.

Taking a deep breath to calm her pounding heart she knocked timidly on the huge oak door and waited.

"Come!" came the distant command from within, and she pushed into the room with only slight hesitation. "You are late young woman." The diviner had his back to her, leaning over some leather-bound volumes on one of the bookshelves, and his matter-of-fact tone betrayed little of his thoughts on the matter.

He was a wiry little man with a wrinkled brown raisin of a face, always screwed up with one profound thought or another. His white hair and beard fell in almost transparent wisps all about him, straggling this way and that as if possessed of its own free will. He was a kind man at heart, or so it was whispered, but his abrupt manner and constant fidgeting made Linala nervous.

"Yes sir," she mumbled out, crinkling her nose at the musty old book smell of the room. Didn't he ever have a maid in to clean?

"Well then? I don't have all day dear, I am a busy man," he replied, turning to peer at her with raised eyebrows.

***

In a hidden chamber deep beneath the laundry, an unusually small imp entered a darkened room and carefully approached a seated figure in the shadows.

"I hope you have something good to tell me?" inquired the figure in the chair.

"They...are being delivered, Sir... as we speak, actually," he replied nervously

"They?"

"I...I have also taken the liberty of having a package delivered to the herbalist, my Lord," he said with confidence, yet shuffled his feet, waiting for the expected outburst. "He is an acquaintance of the diviner, thus I decided--"
"For this once, I shall let that pass," the seated man rose, cutting him off, staring down at the small man. "You have shown initiative, but in the future... check with me first! Now, you are sure that no other has an inkling of what is to come?"

The small imp at last felt his feet on firmer ground. "Of course, my Lord, whom else would know?"

"Whom else indeed?" agreed his master.

***

Linala sat down in a dusty chair and gathered her nerve to speak to the diviner. "Here...here's the package from Forsyth," she stammered, unwrapping it from her apron's pocket. "I would have been here sooner, but I had to chaperone that helper of yours to the laundry."

"Lay it on the other chair next to you." He slammed the book closed with a puff of dust and climbed the ladder to return it to the bookcase. He took his time coming down again, and appeared to be somewhat distracted. Linala waited patiently, arranging her belt skirts. Finally, he jumped off the last rung of the ladder, his feet crashing onto the floor. "Oh, you're still here, I see."

"Well, yes...I thought that I could have your professional opinion..." Linala's voice trailed off. Both of them looked to the door she had left ajar, suddenly creaking as it began moving by itself. Neffer's diminutive face peered around its edge.

Sorry...I guess you'll have to get Gnash to oil that door again, Diviner Raight. I hope I'm not interrupting?"

"Not at all, Neffer. Come in, it's always a pleasure to see you. Linala was just seeking my advice on a matter. Linala...?"

Linala's words gagged in her throat. She couldn't ask her question now, not in front of one of the apprentices. "Oh, it was nothing, really. It can wait until you're not so busy, Diviner.

"As you wish, Linala," Raight replied, escorting her to the door.

"I think she left because of me," Neffer said sheepishly. "But I was on my way to the Herbalist Ryan's shop so I thought I'd stop in and ask if you had anything you'd like me to run over there for you?"

"Yes, I have some charts you can deliver for me please, and don't worry about Linala. Some people think that their worries are more important than other's. It's not your fault that she left in such a huff."

He shuffled up to the chair and picked up the package Linala had left for him, then handed Neffer a roll of parchment charts. "This doesn't seem to be what I expected," he said, studying the small parcel. "I don't think it's even from Forsyth; look at this unusual string." He turned the package around and looked at the seal on the bottom.

"String's just string to me, Diviner Raight, but I did want to ask you about Gnash. I'm worried about him. He seems so lost and distracted, and quite often ignores me altogether."

"We've spoken of this before, Neffer. Gnash is getting his sight. It may be some time indeed before he feels like himself again. Nothing he can do but learn to use it now."
He patted her on her shoulder. "Now get on to your Master Ryan. The cook is going to be upset if she doesn't have her garnishes before the dinner bell!"

"But it seems more than that, Diviner. He never laughs any more, and just today he-"

"It will pass, Neffer," he assured her, dropping the small package on his desk before leading her gently towards the door. Neffer turned quickly and headed back to the desk.

"I must have dropped my list," she said, bending down to pick it up.

***

Gnash had taken only a few, less than enthusiastic strides when he was suddenly overcome with a sense of foreboding. The hallway darkened around him as if a shadow of evil had momentarily obscured the sun's welcome light. A familiar image briefly flashed into his mind, but was gone in an instant. "Neffer!" he shouted, setting off again, this time racing as fast as his little legs could carry him.

***

"Here it is," Neffer said. "I would never have been able to remember to get all of-"
The small package on the Diviner's desk exploded into a fireball, engulfing Neffer's body in an instant. A second, larger explosion ripped through the room, bringing down much of the ceiling.

Diviner Raight stood frozen in the middle of his office, a look of absolute horror on his face as the large, walnut bookcase crashed down on top of him. When the flames died away and the dust eventually settled both he and Neffer lay silent and unmoving amongst the ruins of the room.

Gnash stood weeping in the doorway, blocking the path of many curious onlookers gathering in the hallway behind him. "What have I done?" he sobbed, crumbling to his knees.


[This message has been edited by erebus (edited September 05, 2001).]

Erebus
September 5th, 2001, 12:54 PM
2.

Gnash lay on the ground, in shock. His eyes unfocussed and glazed, his face passive, his skin a pale white.

Assuming he was injured in the blast, his friends bent to his aid, but found a catatonic imp. No obvious injuries; not even a burn, nothing but an imp frozen in body.
But not in mind. From the depths of Gnash's despair a foreign feeling erupted.

His mind focused on a package, lying on a desk. He could feel the rising heat of ignition. The paper slowly gave way to the expanding gas, which burst free in a hellish fireball. The flames rose from the desk in a distorted sphere, the outer edge of the shock wave growing faster now. The edge of the flame reached Neffer and froze. Captured for an instant was his friend, no comprehension of what was to befall her, at the edge of perdition. Then the ball exploded, and she was gone.

"NO!"

Suddenly, it was as if he were a hummingbird hovering many feet above the heads of the crowd. He saw his own prostrate form partially blocked by the rescuers' backs as they bent to offer aid. He heard the word that erupted from deep within him, though saw that his mouth never moved. He saw the rescuers suddenly fall back, away from him, as if they had been shoved. A doorway in his mind opened; a portal of vision through which he could see a hellish red light and flames filling the diviner's study. But the flames were retreating this time, gradually coalescing into a single ball, which shrank and gradually faded away.

Strong afternoon sun replaced the dying fire, illuminating a small package lying on the cluttered desk. He watched as Neffer bent down to retrieve something from the floor, with the Diviner standing to one side. And then he was Gnash again; weeping softly as the sunlight faded into darkness behind the closing door.

***

The sound of urgent voices pulled Gnash back to lucidity. His head ached and his eyes were sore and gritty. Someone had carried him back to the safety of his bed. Dozens of imps were milling about in his cottage, wringing their hands while they nervously paced the cold stone floors.

"Did I save them?" he asked, coughing up a mouthful of phlegm.

"Gnash! You're awake!" Linala shouted. "We've sent for the healmaker. As soon as he's done with-"

"Did I get to them in time?" Gnash asked again, more urgently this time.
Linala dropped her head and the room fell suddenly silent. Tears welled in Gnash's eyes as he read the expressions on his friends' faces. "The healmaker's been doing all he can, Gnash, but the blast..."

"Leave me, please...all of you," Gnash said, waving his friends away. "And tell the healmaker not to waste his time coming to see me. I have not been harmed...at least, not in any physical way," he mumbled. "Now, please leave me to rest a while longer. I shall see you all after dinner." Gnash slowly closed his eyes again, burying his face in the folds of the bed linen, his mind slowly filling with images of the Kingdom's Herbalist.

****

The apothecary was filled with numerous jars, pots, vials and a variety of leafy plants and vegetables, none of which could be identified quickly by an untrained eye. Yet in spite of the haphazard manner in which they were stored, Herbalist Ryan could always find what he needed, and couldn't understand why everyone thought his store was such a mess. Eager to confirm the results of his latest experiment, he was busy feeling a group of concoction-filled jars, measuring the heat of their chemical process.

Tugging the unruly tufts of his red beard, he selected a jar whose contents felt cooler than all the rest and opened the lid to sniff his creation. Eyes watering, he grabbed a stool to stand upon to reach a higher shelf, which was littered with an assortment of small glass vials. He selected a few and began to fill them methodically with the substance from the jar, making sure not to spill any on his hands, which were cracked and worn from many years of gardening.

He paused for a while, thinking. Are there reasons why I should not try this on myself now? He opened a drawer and pulled out a small knife, dipping it in the mixture before gently scraping the back of his hand, just enough to break the skin.

"Herbalist Ryan! Herbalist Ryan!"

Startled by the sudden intrusion, he dropped the knife to the floor. "I'm over here. What do want, and why are you shouting for me?"

A juvenile imp suddenly burst through his doorway. "You have to come quickly; Diviner Raight's study has exploded!"

"What nonsense is this, you little gnat?" he asked angrily, continuing to fill the vials.

"I saw it myself. Then I saw them carry the diviner to the infirmary. The great bookcase fell on top of him. Flattened him good and proper, I can tell you! So they sent me here to tell you; they want you to make something that will bring him back. There was blood everywhere, and Gnash is hurt too, but they don't know what's wrong with him yet-"

"Bring him back?" The imp nodded. "I see. Well go back to whomever sent you and tell them that I'm on my way, though for the life of me I have no idea what they expect me to do!" The imp nodded again, then sped off. Ryan closed the jar and plugged the tops of the vials he had already filled and then grabbed his hat and carry bag, slamming the door behind him.

On his doorstep he noticed a small package. He picked it up and turned it over, noticing that the string was somewhat unusual. He couldn't remember ordering anything but decided to drop it off inside the small workshop alongside the apothecary, tossing it on to the cluttered bench before locking the door and racing off after the imp.

As he hurried down the path, the package he left behind began to hiss. A fine mist began to escape from its corners, covering everything with a pink dust that slowly faded to an undetectable film of evil.

***

The small imp crashed heavily into the wall then slid sideways, knocking over a lectern that stood there, landing awkwardly on the hard floor. A coppery taste filled his mouth as he cowered under the gaze of his master.

"This should not have happened! What in the name of all that is evil did you put in those packages?" screamed his tormentor "They should have been infected... 'Dead in seconds' you said! How can we work with this...DISASTER?"

"I... I... never thought that the infusion would react with the catalyst for the packages. Instead of the dust being released in the surrounding air... they... they..."

"EXPLODED!" shouted his master, hitting the small imp in the face to get his point across. He began to pace, his face a mask of concentration. "We have to make this work... we must make this work..." he paused, thinking on his feet. "Maybe we can say it was the blast that caused the spore to be released...?"

"Master?"

"What?" He looked down at his servant, noticing the blood on his face. "Oh...fear not, little man. You will not die on this day." He started pacing again, nodding his head. "Yes... yes... this is perfect! You've actually done quite well, little man. I knew I could trust you," he said, carefully lowering him into a chair.

The imp clutched his arm, certain that it was broken, then watched as his master walked towards the door. He paused briefly before exiting "You know," he said, smiling now, "I actually bless the day I mastered you!"

***

Beads of sweat tricked slowly down the Patriarch's tired face, and she quickly re-wetted her cloth, gently wiping the old man's forehead. He had started to babble again. Sometimes he was coherent, but those times were becoming more infrequent. She tried to remember when he'd last recognized her, but lately, her days seemed to blend together. "Tamra?" his voice strained as his eyes fluttered open.

"No, Grandpapa. It's Talli. Your granddaughter," she answered softly.

"Tamra, we're late for the coronation. We must hurry," he insisted, his voice rising in urgency.

"Grandpapa, you're not late; there's no need to hurry," she reassured him calmly.

"Tamra? Where did you go? TAMRA!" he shouted, looking wildly around the room. Finally his eyes settled on Talli. She tried desperately not to think of her grandmother and her hand quickly dashed the tears from her eyes. "She'll be right back. She just went to check on the baby," she tried to alleviate his fear.

"Talli? The baby's all right? Talli must be all right. Everything depends on her - Talli, and the laugh-maker. The laugh-maker must laugh again! Everything depends on them," he insisted, fixing his gaze on the woman.

"Talli is fine, and Tamra will be right back too," she assured him, sorrow tainting her voice. A small commotion pulled her attention from her grandfather. A small man with one arm in a sling had entered the room. The attendants were questioning him quietly. After a short inspection they nodded and the small man handed a package to one of them, hesitating only a moment before releasing it. He looked toward Talli and their eyes locked. She tilted her head in surprise and his eyes lowered instantly. The small man quickly found the door and vanished from sight.

The attendant brought the package to Talli and bowed. "This is the new medicine from Forsyth, the healmaker," she said softly as she handed the package over.

"Thank you, I've been expecting this, but I didn't recognize that runner. Is he new?"

"Yes, your Highness. Said he just started today," the attendant answered quickly.

Talli paused for a moment; something nagged at the back of her mind. "Very well. You may return to your post." The attendant quickly obeyed, but before Talli could ponder her sudden uneasiness, the Patriarch again started to ramble. This time about a dark man, death, and suffering. She re-wetted her cloth and once again delicately wiped her grandfather's brow.

***

It took Herbalist Ryan only a cursory examination of the diviner to conclude that there was nothing at all that could be done for him, nor for the hapless Neffer. Instead, he had turned his attention to the plight of Gnash, the kingdom's melancholy imp. He begin ordering those in attendance into action. "You...yes, you, I need a jar of Unglin, 2 Sprox knobs, and some ambergris," he said to the imp closest to Gnash's side. When he didn't move, he said in a loud voice, "HEAR ME! We can save him but we must move fast. When I give an order you'll carry it out. Now go and get me those reagents. Move!"

"What more can you do, Ryan?" the Healmaker asked. " I've tried everything I know and still-"

"There's more to this than that which a simple Healmaker can reverse, I'm afraid. Now, if someone could please go to my workshop and get me what I need! The imp still had not moved. "Damn fools, all of you!" he shouted, suddenly pushing past the startled imps. "I shall get them myself." Moving with all speed, he descended the dimly lit stairway, and exited out into the noonday sun. Missing the gravel path, he headed directly through His Majesties Garden, ignoring the yells of the groundskeeper, and arrived at the door of his workshop. He flung the door open then stopped short, his legs suddenly frozen to the ground.

The imp had followed him from the Gnash's sickbed, and crashed into his back. "Oomph! You oaf. No, wait!" Ryan said, grabbing the startled imp and shoving him roughly against the door jam. He sniffed the air inside. "So, the ancient terror is reborn again," he mumbled under his breath, yet could see nothing inside the shadow-filled shed.

He released the pained imp, who fell to the floor gasping for breath, and then dragged him outside, shutting the door to his workshop. "You, what is your name? Oh never mind; just stay right here and do not let anyone into my workshop. No one is to enter, for any reason, without my authority, understood?" The imp nodded nervously.
Herbalist Ryan sped off. He'd need a torch, some oil, and some water to ensure it didn't get out of control.

Before going back inside he raced over to the town's alarm bell, pulling quickly on the rope as the bell's urgent peal echoed across the kingdom.

Inside the herbalist's workshop, the fine residue danced into a shape that seemed to possess its own sentience. The fine particles twirled into a small, hazy funnel shape, then moved across the shed where it stopped in front of the bolted door. The funnel tightened, thread-like, then floated effortlessly into small crevices between the door and the jam.

Unaware of the evil that was escaping the shed, the nervous imp thought that he could hear the sound of whispers. Disembodied voices that hinted at the darkest of desires. From behind the door the sobs of the weeping damned began to crescendo. The imp wanted to flee, yet was mindful of the herbalist's instructions. Instead, he listened, as the sound grew louder still, watching in horror as the locked door shook violently upon its hinges before exploding outwards with a rain of choking dust and splintered wood.

***

The ailing Patriarch moaned in his sleep, then his eyes fluttered open. With the first lucidity in his eyes in days he croaked, "No it cannot be happening, I haven't the strength anymore."

Gnash also bolted upright from his bed with a look of abject madness in his bloodshot eyes. "Please let this be just a dream...what can I do? I am just a simple Imp."

***

She was poised on her quartz throne like a diamond; all flashing eyes and glittering smiles as the envoy from the silent lands entered. Dismissing the hovering swarm of maids with imperious disregard, Isen, Queen of the Imps and most beautiful of them all, rose to her feet and actually simpered at the man, to the amazement and chagrin of the departing maids.

The tall arrival bowed deeply, his expression serene and masking the roiling depths of hatred and contempt that seethed within. For seventeen turns of the moon he had endured the Imps and their irritating falsetto voices. Even their laughter gave him blinding headaches. Here, where the Order's foes believed that the dark magic of the Bloodwood could not reach. Thus it had been Chokan, greatest mage of their number who had been sent where the magic was faintest, where only he could do what was necessary.

If the King or the Patriarch knew just how far the Bloodwood influence now extended they would never have allowed the exiled Order anywhere near their borders. The Bloodwood had extended its invisible network of roots over the centuries, feeding from the blood of the slain throughout the kingdom and drawing power from it. Now it could even be felt, if distantly, in the land of the imps where once it could not be felt at all.

Even so, it hadn't been easy gaining the trust of these foolish folk. How the ancient order of Bloodmages had ever been crippled by one of these ridiculous beings was beyond Chokan's comprehension. In fact, he was certain the story was a myth and nothing more.

The envoy straightened, a feral grin on his face as he greeted the Queen. She was nearly completely under his sway now, although it was taking almost his entire strength to hold her there despite the failing protection of the Patriarch. "Your Majesty." He began with guarded tones before pausing theatrically and murmuring more personally. "Queen Isen. You are more beautiful than this mere mortal soul can withstand. I came as soon as I was summoned," he paused, then added rakishly, "As if I could do otherwise."

Isen blushed and came close to forgetting why she had summoned the man. Raight had kept on at her to get rid of him, but he was clearly harmless. Why, he was always ready to lend her his advice or counsel whenever she asked. Raight could be such a grumpy old bore, so it was perfectly understandable that she'd rely more on this dashing envoy who was so clever and knowledgeable.

Her dreamy smile faltered suddenly as she recalled. "Diviner Raight!" she squeaked out in dismay. Regaining control of her voice, the tone dropped to a more typical soprano. "Oh, Chokan! Diviner Raight and one of his apprentices are dead! Someone switched packages while my parlor maid's back was turned and it seems that it blew up and killed them!" She explained hurriedly before she forgot it again, like she did so often these days.

Sometimes, when Chokan had not visited for a day or two, she almost thought it strange how much she trusted this envoy of a race that had enslaved them all. But she quickly dismissed the nagging doubt; many generations had passed and the power of the Bloodwood could no longer corrupt their people.

In her most private moments she sometimes daydreamed of the two of them together, away from the eyes of the world for just one night. How wonderful that would be. At first the fantasies were just that, but more often of late she had begun to question the value of her crown, especially if she could not even choose a lover without the condemnation of her subjects! Perhaps it was time to use her power to take to task those who questioned her decisions?

Chokan feigned sorrow, "A tragedy my Lady; if you wish I would be pleased to investigate the matter and discover the assassins responsible?"

Relief washed over Isen at his words, she had been planning to ask Gnash since he was closest to Raight, but he had been acting strangely of late. Yes, this was a much better idea. "Oh would you?" she exclaimed, "That would be most wonderful, Chokan. And perhaps..." she hesitated, some inner voice giving her a moments pause.

"Perhaps what?" the envoy asked.

The Queen pushed down her doubts and firmed her resolve. Raight would agree now, and even if he didn't, he was dead. "And perhaps this evening, if you're not too busy, you might like to dine with me and discuss the investigation. In my private rooms, since we don't want other ears to hear the details," she added with a definite reddening of her cheeks.

"Of course, whatever my Lady desires," Chokan answered smoothly, taking her hand and bending to kiss it. "I will also see to it that your guard is increased. In fact, I will detail some of my own men to the task. Your safety could also be in jeopardy," he cautioned.

She nodded and smiled, butterflies dancing in her stomach with excitement. The envoy bowed once more and departed, another feral smile lit on his face. Perhaps this mission would have some compensation after all. He would have to find his servant again. He had a new mission for him now. An imaginary assassin needed to be found and executed to bring justice for poor, old Raight. Chokan chuckled suddenly as he thought of the perfect target. It would be a good day, his mission triumphant, the Queen a biddable bedmate, and silencing the mirth of that idiot imp Gnash before it ever returned.

***

Talli knelt down beside her grandfather, touching his tangled, sweaty hair with gentle, loving strokes. "Be calm, grandpapa, I have something that will ease your pain." She got up and went to the package; her fingers touched the bright string laces.

Suddenly, the patriarch sat upright in his bed, his eyes wearing a look of dread. Talli watched him in horror as he slowly opened his mouth to speak, somehow knowing that these could be his final words. "Tamra, he is here...the usurper has arrived...hide your children, lock your doors! Tamra, we should have known better-" He looked at Talli, his face contorted in pain, and collapsed back on his pillow.

She stood up, still clasping the package, unconsciously pulling at its string. "Grandpapa?" she inched closer to the bed. "Grandpapa? Grandpapa?" He didn't respond. She sat on the bed, holding his hand, sobbing quietly, a flood of tears splashing onto her trembling hands.

***

From the recesses of the darkening wood, the shapeless abomination watched the imp as it lay motionless on the path outside the herbalist's shed. The wavering mist shifted in shades of pink to bruised red, recalling its simple pleasure of caressing the imp's hapless body.

He had seen little as the bloodmist swept through his body only seconds after the blast, feeding of his agony as the unsuspecting imp was devoured, his face a rictus of unimaginable agony. The freshness of his soul had strengthened the bloody mass, yet many more were needed. Its transmutation had only just begun.

There was a commotion as the herbalist, leading a crowd of curious imps, came charging back to the shed with firebrands and buckets of water. Ryan cried out as he saw the dying imp before him. He dug into his pouch, and pulled out a root, chewing on it quickly before forcing the softened glob into the imp's mouth. He stood up to face the black, impenetrable woods and yelled, "You think I don't know what you are?"

He turned to the gathering crowd and barked, "There's no need to burn the shed now. Whatever was there has gone now." Who could have known I had it hidden in here. And for what purpose would they seek to unite such evil? he thought, betraying nothing of his fears to those who still milled around him.

Unseen, the bloody, shapeless mass retreated. It hungered for the taste of souls, many souls. But its prize would be the soul of the laughing imp. Only then would it be free from its eternal perdition. The branches of the tress rustled as if they had been caressed with an evil wind as the shapeless abomination floated silently into a darkening sky.

***

Chokan glanced down at his servant's broken arm, "You saw to it that Talli received the package?"

"Yes, Master; I watched with my own eyes as Talli took it from her attendant. But she looked at me oddly."

"I wouldn't concern myself with that, little man. You are indeed, a little odd. Rather, I'm barely able to resist rejoicing. There are but a few more obstacles before me, and soon, I shall accomplish on my own that which even the Order has not been so fortunate to achieve!"

Chokan looked fondly upon his mirthless imp. It was such an advantage to have an imp who did not laugh. Not because he hated the dreadful sound, but because he also knew it was a potential source of his undoing. Fortunately, the one imp with limitless mirth had fallen into a mood. Yes, soon, Gnash too would be gone, he thought. Along with Talli and her grandfather. But for now, I have an appetite of an entirely different nature! "Cheer up, little man; your arm will heal soon enough. Tidy this mess while I'm gone, will you. I must leave at once for my... appointment with the Queen!"

***

Gnash tossed and turned with unconscious trepidation. Strange visions and distant voices haunted his dreams. It was the first time in a long while that he had missed three meals in a row, although the last meal was still there on a table by his bedside. The bed and pillow beneath him were comforting, but in spite of this he was still angry and frustrated at his ineffectiveness. The sight the diviner had promised him seemed only a curse now, making him relive Neffer's death, time and time again. Yet the outcome was always the same

Raight had told him that upon his death, Gnash would have to take over as diviner, regardless of his control or understanding of his newfound sight. He'd tried so hard to save them both, but as in most things these days, that too had been a failure. If only he could go back to being the kingdom's prankster. Being a simple imp was so much easier than this, he thought.

"You're too hard on yourself, Gnash," said a disembodied yet familiar voice. "You may have bought us some time with your actions, though I never believed for a moment that you could save us both. Nor should you, Gnash. That is not how it should be, and if you care to think back on our sessions instead of wallowing in your mirthless self-pity, you would remember this also!"


"So, even the voices in my dreams find it necessary to chastise me," Gnash said despondently.

"Gnash! Listen to me. Do you not recognize my voice?"

"I...I'm not sure. Am I still dreaming?"

"No! Now pull yourself together; there is much that we should do. You must get up immediately and deliver my will to the Queen. You have to remember what we arranged in those weeks leading up to my death, Gnash. Please...you're our only hope now!"

"Diviner Raight...is that you?" Gnash stared at the ceiling above his bed but the voice had gone. A flash of recollection suddenly exploded inside his mind and he launched himself out of bed, his feet hitting the stone floor and his toes curling up from the cold. He quickly threw on some clothes and a coat, and gobbled a piece of bread, stuffing the rest of the loaf into his pocket. He paused to open a chest at the foot of his bed where Raight had demanded his last will and testament be kept, only a few weeks before. Checking that the hallways were empty, Gnash set off towards the royal chambers, unseen by anyone.

A sense of urgency engulfed him and he knew he should quicken his pace if he was to reach the Queen in time. The diviner's will clutched firmly in his hand, he sped across the courtyard towards her chamber, not noticing one of the laundry imps also dashing across the cobblestones from his left.

The two collided with a sickening crunch of bones, and Gnash fell to the ground, twisting his ankle. "Sorry, I didn't see you...Gnash, is that you?" the other imp asked him. "Where are you going?"

"Er...No time to explain now," Gnash replied, quickly lifting himself from the cobblestones.

The laundry imp shrugged, watching Gnash hobbling away. "Oh, suit yourself then. Hey, Gnash...what do you call a hobbling imp?"

"Huh?"

"It's a joke, Gnash; what do you call a hobbling imp?"

"I have no idea, but I just know you're going tell me!" Gnash shouted back.

"A Limp, Gnash!" he said, proud of his joke.

Gnash stopped his legs, somewhat painfully, and then turned around to face his friend. He stared at him for a few seconds and then burst into fits of laughter, surprising the laundry imp
.
"Are you laughing, Gnash?"

"Well yes, it seems that I am," Gnash said, suddenly feeling better than he had in months. Perhaps everything would turn out all right after all, he thought. "Oh, but I wouldn't be giving up my job in the laundry just yet," he said to the other imp, and then sped off again, still limping a little, towards the Queen's chamber.


[This message has been edited by erebus (edited September 05, 2001).]

Erebus
September 5th, 2001, 12:56 PM
Part Two - Bloodlines

3.

Throbbing with insatiable cravings, the bloody haze drifted through the woods, pausing briefly as the echo of Gnash's cackle reached its ears. So...it laughs again. Having fed at last, the abomination's senses were growing stronger. Yet the young imp's soul would not sustain it for long. It must grow stronger still if it was to find the one it sought. Laugh on, chosen one. Soon you will be mine.

***

Talli was still sobbing, nervously pulling at he package's string. A chill suddenly crept across her spine as she realized that her grandfather might have been trying to warn her. She remembered her earlier suspicion, and of how she hadn't recognized the broken-armed imp.

Talli, the last surviving progeny of the imp patriarch, had lost her parents in the crimson plague when she was only two months old, yet somehow she had survived the cruel affliction, and her grandparents has raised her as they best they could. Seeing her grandfather's body, lying so limp and lifeless now, broke her heart.

On the table beside her was the peculiar package. Her head told her to leave it,
but her heart said that this could be a new and wonderful medicine. The Healmaker was a good man, surely he wouldn't send something that would hurt the patriarch? The dilemma was unbearable; she had to do something.

Talli swallowed her fears and finally removed the string, slowly lifting the package's lid. A haze of pink mist seeped out of the box. "What trickery is this!" she shouted in panic, heading for the door. Her hand was only inches from the handle when a cloud of darkness suddenly blinded her eyes.

***

Isen looked at the out-of-breath parlor maid with a frown. "Do you always dash around like a Svartbug in a jar?" she queried sternly.

Linala shook her head mutely, embarrassed and distraught simultaneously. She couldn't imagine why the Queen would want a private audience with that snaky Envoy of the Order. But it was her own failure to talk to Diviner Raight, or even to Gnash that had her doubting her own abilities.

"Well?" demanded Isen, "Was there a purpose to your arrival or was it just that the air here is more conducive to stuffing clouds with daydreams?" The girl was starting to irritate her more and more.

"I uh, that is, Chokan..." Linala managed to stammer out.

"Chokan? What of him?"

"He sent me here to advise you that he's ready for your audience. He's in your private rooms," she added.

The Queen smiled and rose to her feet, "He's a little early, and somewhat presumptuous as well. More the better," she murmured, almost forgetting the parlor maid's presence. "Thank you...Linala, isn't it? We have to discuss his investigation into the diviner's death," she explained, unnecessarily. Linala seemed unsure of the explanation but nodded nonetheless, bowing as she left the room.

The Queen frowned again then headed of to meet with Chokan, passing the many guards he had posted around her quarters and along the hallways. Saluting respectfully, the guards stood by and watched her walk slowly to the door of her private rooms. The Imperial guards refrained from joking around as they might ordinarily have done. The sinister addition of Chokan's men had dampened any latent humor. Worse yet, there were rumors of assassins in the palace, and it was said that Gnash was a prime suspect.

The senior guard waited patiently for the Queen's directions. "Igneld, this meeting is very important and we are not to be disturbed under any circumstance. Is that clear?" Isen instructed, one hand on the door handle.

Igneld nodded and did his best to straighten up and look imposing. "Yes your Majesty," he answered. He blushed, certain that the Order guards were laughing inwardly at his falsetto voice. Isen noticed the blush and blushed as well, misunderstanding the source. "And keep your mind on the job, guard!" she warned before disappearing inside the chamber.

Igneld turned to the others and shrugged at the strange outburst. Seconds later, Gnash suddenly appeared at the end of the corridor, hobbling rapidly towards them. If it had been up to Igneld he'd have let him alone, but with the envoy's guards at hand he really had no choice.

He was in the process of giving the order when another imp, one of the parlor maids he thought, appeared beside Gnash and dragged him off into a side passage. Immediately, two of the envoy's guards ran down the hall, shouting for them to stop.
Secretly relieved, Igneld hoped the two imps knew the palace better than the envoy's men. He didn't believe for one minute that Gnash had done the things he'd been accused of.

Gnash fought against his captor, but she was too powerful, and he was literally dragged down the dark hall. Pain shot through his aching ankle as he was thrown into an alcove. The jarring impact of the stone wall stunned him, and before he could regain his balance he felt his captor's body press him against the wall while a firm hand clasped over his mouth.

The clanking sound of armor signalled the approach of the guards. "What has he got us off doing now?" asked a deep voice.

"Chasing imps, it seems. Like we're going to find an imp in this place? Little runts know it like the back of their hairy hands, always scurrying about, getting underfoot," said a second voice with an unusual accent.

No longer up the hall, the voices were now right in front of Gnash. The guards were at the alcove. "Come on!" The first voice boomed, and Gnash knew they were caught. "We'd better hurry," the guard continued, "they're already out of sight!"

To Gnash's relief, the voices receded into the distance. The hand was released from his mouth and he gasped for breath. A flame sputtered, throwing light into the alcove. The aches and pains and fear of his ordeal were lost in a flood of tears as the light revealed his captor. "No!" he cried, and the hand returned momentarily to his mouth. "Neffer," he whispered, "is it really you?"

Erebus
September 5th, 2001, 12:58 PM
4.

Wavering into a hungry, red mass the abomination floated through the dark woods and soon came upon a cottage. There was a family of imps preparing for their evening repast. An abrupt thrum of hunger rippled across the evil cloud's thoughts. Answering its own craving, the foul, nebulous atrocity descended silently upon the unsuspecting family.

Passing fist through the mother, then caressing the father, savoring the power they gave it. Immediately, the mist darkened as it hovered over the younger prey. It had saved the sweetest souls till last, watching with delight as the family of imps suffered through their deaths.

A powerful energy coursed through the mist as it solidified and coalesced. The transformation had begun, and with it came a flood of memories. Yes...I am Araedael, it thought. The powerful creature raised its massive arms and clenched its talon hands. You hear me imp? I am Araedael and I have come for your soul!

***

A cold chill traveled the length of Ryan's spine as the creature's words echoed through his ears. "Did anyone else hear that?" he asked.

"Hear what? " some of them asked.

"Never mind." Ryan was pacing back and forth his mind racing. "It's worse than even I dared to think! All of you, return to your lodgings and lock the doors. Hide your children, and hide them well. Evil is upon us with a vengeance!"

The crowds scattered with fear in their hearts and death at their heels. Ryan stormed into his shed and buried his head in his hands. "Why did I not destroy it when I had the chance?" he screamed, staring at the empty container on the floor. Just as he had feared, the mummified heart of Araedael was gone.

***

The second pink mist was obscuring the sun, casting an unnatural darkness in the patriarch's room. Talli cringed in the corner by the door, paralyzed with fear. She'd heard about sorcery, but never seen it with her own eyes. But the mist was not interested in her, it seemed. Instead, it hovered by the bedside then slowly enveloped the patriarch's body, eager to join its cousin in the woods.

There was nothing Talli could do for her grandfather now so she decided to make her escape, pausing briefly as she took one last look at the body on the bed. Sobbing, she turned around and ran as fast as she could, never once looking back. She felt nothing more than a strange tingling sensation on the back her neck, but by the time she realized what had happened, her strength had gone and she was powerless to prevent herself from being pushed towards the hallway's open window.

***

Chokan knelt down and kissed the queen's small, delicate hand. "My Queen," he said with a forced smile, "it is a pleasure to be in your honorable company once again."

"Come, come, Chokan," said Isen with fluttering irises, "you're too kind."

When the pleasantries were over, Chokan slowly rose to his feet. It was a large, well-lit hall, with six giant chandeliers, not a spot in the room was dark. Isen sat on her ruby covered throne, wearing nothing but a flimsy scarlet robe and an emerald tinged golden crown. Her lovely, miniature face was white as marble, her big eyes sparkled in shades of green, and her tiny, pointy ears resembled upturned, lady daggers.

"Your majesty, I have bad news; a potent sorcery was released in the courtyard," said Chokan.

"I know. It has vanquished the Grattely clan in the forest," she said solemnly.
.
"Indeed, but I think I know who's responsible for this act of treason, so, with her Majesty's permission..." She hesitated for a second. She liked him all right, but this was all too easy. "I fear it will destroy every living thing in the kingdom in a matter of hours, your Majesty."

"But, Chokan-" she started, but never finished.

He moved closer to her, ready to vaporize any lasting doubt. "This very morning, my Queen, it also killed your trusted diviner, a strong and powerful wizard, yet even he was no match for-"

"No, usurper, you're wrong."

Isen glared at the interloper. "Neffer...? I thought you were-"

"It can't be...you're dead!" Chokan screamed at her.

"Look again, mage, your bloodmist cannot help you now!"

***

Linala knew there was only one person she could trust with what she now knew. Sobbing, she raced along the pathway to find Ryan. He above all would know what to do.

She could see him sitting on the floor inside the doorless workshop, his head buried in his hands, chastising himself, or so it seemed. Nervously, she coughed to get his attention. "I'm sorry, Herbalist Ryan, but I must speak with you. Something truly awful has happened!"

"Well of course it has, you stupid maid! An evil has been unleashed, as well you know."

"Yes...but it's not just that, Sir. I didn't know what was in them, you see. He just told me to deliver them. How was I to know-"

"Whatever are you rambling about, woman? You didn't know what was in what?"

"The packages, Sir. He told me to say that they were from Forsyth, the Healmaker. But they weren't, and now everyone's dying and the blood curse has come back to destroy us all!"

"You delivered the packages?" She nodded. "And who prey tell gave them to you?"

"It was the envoy, Sir. Chokan. He's not who he says he is and I-"

"Chokan gave you the packages?"

"Well, not exactly, Sir, it was his servant. But that's not important. I heard him talking about resurrecting the ancient curse. Herbalist Ryan, Chokan is a descendant of the Bloodmage lineage. The evil runs through his blood as surely as I stand here today. The explosion was an accident; his real plan was to enslave us all and take control of the kingdom!"

"Of course! It all makes sense now, and I too have played right into his hands, albeit unwittingly, but the damage is done nonetheless."

"Sir?"

"I kept it here in my workshop - the mummified heart of Araedael. I thought it would be safe, but now..."

"Oh...and now Chokan's mist has reclaimed it, hasn't it?" Ryan nodded. "So what can do?"

"I'm not really sure. I've been sitting here thinking, and I do have one idea, though it's a long shot at best."

"Well, we have to do something, Sir. I feel so responsible."

"As indeed you are, Linala. But so too am I, of course. Though I expect you'll find no comfort in knowing that?"

Linala shook her head. "So, what do we do now?"

"Talli!" Ryan suddenly shouted, his eyes alive with the seeds of a plan. "We must find Talli...before it's too late!"

***

"Your Majesty," Neffer continued, " it was Chokan who..."

"Shut up!" cried Chokan angrily. From his robe he produced a small bag, and in an instant his hand shot out of it clutching a small amount of blue powder. He threw it at Neffer, but the ice salt, which was supposed to freeze her, bounced off her outstretched hands. "How did you do that?" Chokan murmured, half to himself, "You're not a diviner".


"Oh, but I am," Neffer said, smiling now as she inched closer to him. He took a step back. "You are a despicable creature, you all are in fact; the entire, evil Order."


"And what do know of our Order, you petulant little imp? I shall kill you with my bare hands, if need be!"


"I don't think so, Bloodmage," Gnash said, hobbling into the chamber.

***

Herbalist Ryan raced out of the door, Linala following on his heels. After a cursory glance around they both ran toward the gathering crowd. The onlookers quickly stepped out of his way. When he broke into the center of the crowd, he froze. The future Matriarch, Talli, lay motionless on the ground.

Her left leg was bent at an impossible angle, but that was of little concern. Ryan immediately knelt down and carefully listened to her chest. Satisfied with her breathing and heartbeat, he quickly gathered a few of the onlookers to hold her leg, ready for the move inside the palace. As gently as he could he gathered her petite body into his hands, looking up at the reddening sky above them. "Hurry, we don't have much time. Linala, fetch the Healmaker, and somebody find Gnash...quickly!"

***

Gnash lunged at Chokan with a small dagger. "Guards!" bellowed Chokan as he punched the imp's small face. Gnash reeled backwards into and through Neffer. Chokan sneered; she was a ghost, or so it seemed. Unwavering, Gnash jumped at him again, this time gashing Chokan's leg. The Bloodmage looked surprised; the wound in his leg was painful but nothing debilitating. In fact, the blood empowered him as it left his body and ran down his leg to the floor. "Where are my guards?" he shouted again.

"They cannot help you now, Chokan," Neffer said, in a strange but powerful voice. "The palace doors will only open for the righteous now. My spells have seen to that."

"Bah! What strength is there in the spell of a dead imp?"

"Gnash, you know who I am, don't you?" Neffer asked.

"Well, it's Neffer who I see, but the voice...the voice is not hers at all."

"Indeed, remember what I told you, Gnash. It's very important."

Queen Isen shuffled uncomfortably on her throne. "Raight? Is that you?"

Neffer just smiled, and then vanished.

"What nonsense is this?"

"Shut up, Chokan," the Queen said. "Gnash, you have something to tell me, I presume?"

***

The larger cloud of bloodmist had finally reached the palace walls, seeking its smaller cousin that was hovering slowly above the cobblestone common. Araedael smiled as his real self returned, embracing the other nebulous cloud of evil that teemed with the ebullience of a recent feed. Sniffing the air he picked up the sent of his prize, only meters away inside the palace walls.

***

"Please, your Majesty," Chokan said, turning to face the Queen. "Do you not see how their sorcery fools you? Gnash is an assassin; he'll tell you nothing but lies. I, on the other hand, shall protect and serve, at her Majesty's pleasure of course," he said, a feral smile creeping across his face as he moved to her side.

Isen smiled and drew close to him. "Be that as it may, Chokan, I owe it to Gnash to hear his confession, whatever it may be. We can continue our...business at a later time."

"A most magnanimous gesture, your Majesty. Clearly, your husband was a fool to abandon you, as are your subjects fools, each and every one of them! Such an enigma of beauty with a heart to match."

Queen Isen visibly blushed. "Go ahead, Gnash, tell me what you know."

"Thank you, my Queen. I have come first and foremost to deliver to you the last will and testament of Diviner Raight. I'm sure once you've read his statement my innocence will be confirmed, as too will that of my friend Neffer, and the diviner himself. Your...envoy has you under a spell, your Majesty. Please, read the diviner's will and see for yourself." He handed her the parchment scroll, glaring at Chokan.

"More lies and sorcery I expect, your Majesty."

"Please, Chokan. Let me read it first." Isen's eyes scanned through the handwritten text, though her face betrayed nothing of what it contained.

Gnash was about to plead with her when he noticed the envoy's arm circle her waist possessively. When the Queen didn't resist and actually sidled closer to the bloodmage his heart sank even lower. Perhaps she was already too far-gone, he feared. As hope left him, he watched the way the mage and the Queen were interacting; it suggested a greater intimacy. It was almost as if they were actually...no, he thought, that would be preposterous.

Finally, Queen Isen looked down at Gnash. "So, if I am to believe what is written here, Diviner Raight knew of this threat to the Kingdom at the time of the seventh moon." Gnash nodded. "And, foreseeing his eventual demise, he began grooming you, in secret, to take over as the palace's diviner."

"Yes. I could tell no one, of course, for fear of alerting Chokan and his cohorts. Diviner Raight knew that he would try to resurrect the blood curse, but couldn't predict an accurate date. Knowing too that the bloodmist feeds on the mirth of imps, it was suggested that I stop my shenanigans at once, so as not to draw the ancient evil to myself, and the palace of course."

"Really, your Majesty. Are we expected to believe any of this fanciful tale of lies?"

"I find it quite interesting, actually, Chokan."

"As you please, my Queen."

Gnash continued. "But, a consequence of my newfound powers was a loss of short term memory, and even I found it difficult to comprehend the changes in my body. I've been miserable for so long now, I thought I'd never find reason to laugh again.

Ah...but you did, foolish imp, and already my creation looms closer to seal all of your fates!

"Indeed, you are correct, Chokan. I have, as you said, drawn the evil to myself, but with good reason. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I have the power of telepathy now, so I would guard my thoughts well, if I were you!"

"Your Majesty! Clearly the imp has lost his mind. What foolishness is this?"

Gnash only chuckled.

Chokan withdrew his arm from around the Queen and clenched his fists. "You think this is funny, imp?" he shouted.

"You tell me, Chokan. Can you not see the irony? Is your power so weak that even you cannot see beyond the diviner's glamour spells? Or, could it be that you've already tasted the forbidden pleasures of our kingdom?" Isen blushed and refused to look at any imp in the room. Diviner Raight had assured her that no one else knew! Perhaps the melancholy imp spoke the truth after all?

Chokan looked baffled. "And what of it? What if I have, you miserable little worm?"
Gnash tried to suppress a howl of laughter and it emerged as a strangled giggle. Be careful, Gnash; the evil lurks near, Raight warned inside his head. "Then, perhaps you should see her as I now do, without the ancient spells?" Gnash swept his hand across his face, perhaps a little too theatrically.

Chokan recoiled in horror as the Queen at his side shrank away into a wrinkled hag. Large, pus-filled boils erupted from her skin and thick, black hairs sprouted from several on her face. A lank, gray mane meandered down her scalp like so much syrup, as her once sparkling eyes filled with milky-white cataracts. The bloodmage stepped back fighting a sudden urge to vomit.

Isen pouted and blushed with embarrassment, her cheeks becoming splotchy and mottled with humiliation. Her toothless mouth sagged and spittle flecked the corners of her thin lips as she began to berate Gnash. "You should not have done this, imp! How...how have you done this?"

"I am sorry, my Queen; it was the only way I could get you to believe me. I shall cast a spell of forgetfulness so that no other will recall what they have seen here this day. But for now, I think it would be prudent of you to take Chokan into custody. So bloodmage, you want to bed our Queen? Then by all means, help yourself...if you still have the nerve, that is!"

Chokan looked down at him, his face a mask of disgust. "You think you can defeat me, imp?"

"Oh, I don't think, mage, I know!" Gnash couldn't withstand it any more. "The look on your face!" he howled breathlessly, as laughter boiled up from within. The imps around the wall were shell-shocked as the secret of the Queen's eternal youth was revealed. Then they began to snicker along with Gnash. Snickers that quickly turned into belly laughs. Gnash always was a good one to find a joke, in any situation!

In seconds Chokan was surrounded by insanely laughing imps. He dropped to his knees and vomited, the song of bloodmagic in his veins had been shattered by the relentless laughter of the imps. 'Araedael!" he cried. "Can you not hear this?"

The outer wall of the Queen's chamber suddenly exploded as the bloodmist floated through the wreckage and descended to the floor, solidifying as it fell. A translucent, blood-filled Araedael rose up from the floor, grabbing indiscriminately at the attending imps until it spied its long-awaited prize.

***

Ryan and Forsyth watched the supine form of Talli for a moment with some relief. Her spirit had finally been hauled back from wherever it had been, but only with a great deal of effort from both of them. Hovering between life and death, she should have been eager to return to her body, but is was as if she was fighting them every step of the way. In spite of her broken leg, which they'd managed to heal earlier, she was moving fitfully in her drug-induced sleep. Without warning, Talli sat up on the bed, suddenly screaming like a banshee. "Gnash! We must protect Gnash!" she shouted. "I can feel it calling for him."

Linala exploded into the room. "I've found him! Gnash, I mean; he's in the Queen's chamber."

"I can save him... I can save you all!" Talli screamed. "Take me to him, quickly!"

"Are you sure, Talli? You're still so weak. I had hoped that such a thing was possible, but in your present state, how can you be sure?"

"We have no time to waste, Ryan. Trust me, I remember something my grandfather told me. Araedael cannot harm me. I am immune to his touch."

"Then we must hurry. Forsyth, Linala, help our Matriarch to the Royal chamber. I shall gather all that I can of my herbs, just in case. Pray that I don't need to use them!"

***

Gnash was cowering under the shadow of the beast when the others arrived. Talli immediately raced to his side, ignoring her still-healing leg. Chokan was still retching, a puddle of bile, and blood from his injured leg, spread slowly on the floor around him.

Araedael bent down and sniffed Talli, his eyes suddenly alive with renewed interest. He licked his lips, drooling like a rabid dog. "Ignore her, you fool. It's the imp you must kill," Chokan spat.

"Just a small taste first, I think," Araedael said, tearing her chest with a blood-encrusted talon."

"No!" Gnash shouted.

"It's all right, Gnash, she knows what she's doing." Ryan assured him. A chorus of gasps echoed through the chamber as Araedael slowly melted again; the resulting bloodmist seeping into the wound between Talli's breasts. The cut gradually closed as her body filled with the ancient evil, healing without a trace or scar as the last of the mist disappeared inside her, trapping it completely.

Gnash watched in horror as her body convulsed violently, fighting the evil that surely coursed through her veins.

"Fear not, Gnash. Talli has survived the ancient plague once before. Her body is immune to its power. No harm will come to her."

"Are you sure?"

Ryan didn't answer him immediately. "Well, history will be our witness, I suppose."

Talli screamed as a torrent of burning blood exploded from her mouth, across the room and onto to Chokan's injured leg. Fighting for survival, Araedael panicked and sought immediate refuge inside the envoy's body, forgetting that they shared the same bloodline. Chokan screamed as the evil began to devour him from the inside out, their two bloods mixing with the purity of Talli's.

But it was a cocktail of destruction for both of them, and the two bloodmages devoured each other as they both fought to survive. Chokan's body exploded into a fireball that consumed his flesh as quickly as Araedael choked on his intestines, both of them dying as the flames faded away. All that remained were the entwined petrified hearts of evil. Yet neither one would ever beat again.


[This message has been edited by erebus (edited September 05, 2001).]

Erebus
September 5th, 2001, 01:00 PM
Epilogue

Gnash waited a week before he dared to visit the Queen again. Ryan and Forsyth had both tried to cure his twisted ankle, but it seemed the injury would be a constant reminder of all that had happened. Talli was recovering well, in spite of her ghastly ordeal, and looking forward to a long rein as Matriarch. Mostly, things had already returned to normal, and of course, no one but Gnash ever remembered the Queen's true appearance. It was even rumored that the King would soon return from his self-imposed exile on the other side of the palace, though Gnash somehow doubted that.

Linala greeted him at the Queen's chamber, quickly showing him inside. Only a trace of the recent destruction remained, and that too would soon be gone, if only the Queen could decide on a new color for the walls. She watched as he hobbled across the floor towards her throne.

"Hello, Gnash. It's good to see you."

Gnash bowed. "As it is to see you, my Queen."

"I know we have much to speak of, but before we do, I must tell you what I've only just myself been told. Linala said she overheard it in the laundry. Now then, how does it go? Oh yes...do you know what they call a hobbling imp?"

Gnash stared at her for a moment then burst into uncontrollable laughter that echoed for many minutes through the capacious halls of the Kingdom's palace.