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#1 Guest_Ivan_*

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 09:39 PM

It was a dark and stormy night. That isn't to suggest that it was entirely unpleasant. The thunderstorm was one of those with the theatrical sensibility to inflect foreboding, without overstepping its bounds as an atmospheric setpiece. There are storms- you know the ones - that are especially blustery and insist on making themselves the center of attention. No appreciation for subtlety- those storms- and a body has no choice but to batten down the hatches and ride it out. This one seemed content to howl at a respectable distance, ready to punctuate any ominous dialogue with a well-timed thunderclap. It wasn't that Brother Haver of the Shallow Guild of Bleak Sunrise was unaccustomed to such conditions. What bothered him is that two-and-one-half minutes ago it had been Thursday afternoon.

To his immediate left sat Brother Dereleth, who remained altogether unaffected by the storm's showmanship. Wind and rain- even the obnoxious kind- mean little to the incorporeal. He was trying his best to affect a beleaguered posture out of simple politeness- for the same reason old men grumble and nod when other old men discuss their ailments. Misery is noted for being something of a social butterfly. Dereleth watched Haver struggle for a brief but necessary moment before he proffered a gentle suggestion.

"Perhaps it is time to return the Horn to its rightful owner."

On cue, a thunderous underpinning bounced between distant clouds. (Dereleth's suggestion hadn't been especially significant, but the storm knew that a better opportunity was probably not going to present itself today. ) Brother Haver's disappointment was, for the moment, outweighed by his sudden inability to stand upright. The rain and wind, sensing the end, had decided to give themselves an impressive sendoff. The storm was disappointed too, and slowly dispersed with the feigned indifference of a career alcoholic at last call. As Brother Haver, from a seated position, coaxed a large cork back into the fabled Hunting Horn of Lei Gong, pale sunlight prodded the Guild grounds with marked disinterest. Status quo for Guildhouse weather was a dry, somewhat sinister, early dusk chill- an enchantment that was somewhat out of character for the Guild's typically clandestine leanings. (Prevalent natural weather could, with some effort, override the enchantment, but the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn't worth the effort. Nonetheless, it seemed that every winter there was at least one fierce hailstorm that made it a point to test its mettle against the Shallow Guild of Bleak Sunrise.)

"We should send Gate, too."

It was Brother Haver's turn to speak as he futilely inspected the horn, searching in vain for some excuse to study the artifact again. Had certain, less diplomatic individuals been present, Haver's suggestion of Malcom Gate- the Guild's Portalmancer- could've been interpreted as the groundwork for future espionage. Once Gate had traveled somewhere it was no task at all for him to return instantly. As for the individual implied in the "too" part of "Gate, too," there was no misinterpreting that. Crispian St. Crispin was the Shallow Guild's official envoy and well accustomed to errands involving both diplomacy and subterfuge. Dereleth greatly hoped to avoid the latter in this instance. There was nothing to be gained from angering the King of Storms, and if the Guild was going to part with a valuable (albeit uncontrollable) artifact... well, gaining an ally would go a long way in tempering that loss.

Two hours later a much drier Brother Haver stood in front of the Guild stables, flanked by Half-Brothers Gate and St. Crispin. As he dusted the last of the arcana obscura from the Horn of Lei Gong- a necessary preparation that had kept it hidden- St. Crispin prepared their mount for the journey. Kelton Spittol was a giant riding spider, a gift from the King of Rooftop Albion. Kelton was well trained and well mannered- if a little vain- and his swift and surefooted climbing would turn what was normally an arduous week-long scale of Mt. Philipi into an overnight journey. St. Crispin finished packing the last of the saddle bags, mounted the giant spider in a single, practiced leap, and spoke to both Kelton and Gate.

"The road we're taking to Nimbia is a well-kept secret, and- as far as I know- the only way to get there without riding the lightning. Once we leave the Guild grounds with that thing we'll need to move quickly, it has a habit of attracting all kinds of wandering mistrals- which is attention we don't need. This trip shouldn't take more than four days round-trip. If it does, things have either gone very wrong or very right."

"What do you mean, very right?" the apprehension in Gate's voice indicated he was not ready to leave just yet.

"King Stormforge has, on occasion, been an overly hospitable host. You'll be fine, just try not to get yourself married while we're up there."

Before Gate could respond Crispian St. Crispin reached down with one hand and hoisted him onto Kelton's broad back. With a quick rider's flourish, (which nobody on that plane of reality would ever really appreciate,) they were off. Brother Haver quietly watched as the duo cut due east toward the distant shadows of the Apos mountains, while stormclouds loitered on the horizon.

#2 Guest_Ivan_*

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 07:11 PM

The western and northwestern faces of Mt. Philipi- Khazan's tallest and most cinematic mountain- offered a picturesque, snow-covered landscape. The mountain was home to two world-class ski resorts and was a familiar backdrop for family vacation photos. Conversely the eastern slope of the long-dormant stratovolcano was a vast and largely untouched frozen wasteland, characterized by jagged rocks, harsh winds, and deep chasms. Gate had guessed wrongly that they would ascend the deadly eastern face of the mountain. No such luck; Crispian St. Crispin led them directly to the mountain's southern exposure.

Mt. Philipi's southern slope would've historically been described as "impossible" and "hellish," had any of Khazan's intrepid early explorers had the common decency to write home about it before plummeting to their deaths. The south face was nothing short of a climber's nightmare: close to two vertical miles of sheer, ice-covered cliffs and narrow ledges: fraught with crumbling rock, black ice, and direct exposure to the violent crosswinds that made air rescue impossible. A volcanic sulfur impurity in the ice also made it smell funny. Gate very much doubted the need to keep this route to Nimbia a secret: who but the Guild would be foolish enough to attempt to access the Kingdom of Storms this way?

The riders reached the base of the mountain and Kelton shifted to a vertical stance. A hidden mechanism in the saddle rocked forward, keeping them level. As the last known Portalmancer on earth, Malcom Gate had long ago conquered any fear of heights. He could- in an instant- safely place the three of them back at the Guildhouse front gate, which was of course the real problem. A simple slip or nervous twitch wrongly misinterpreted might send them back to the beginning of their journey. Then there was the added danger of bringing an artifact like The Horn of Lei Gong through the In-Between. The absolute middle of any journey- be it from the couch to the fridge or from Akron, Ohio to The Outer Arcanus Obliques- necessarily passes through the In-Between for a fractally small fraction of a fraction of a second. Not even the rare and exquisite art of Portalmancy was immune. As one might imagine, quite a number of interested parties kept a close eye on it. Brother Tchuuu once described the In-Between as a circle whose center lies on its own circumference. Whatever the case, Haver had been fairly adamant that Gate not teleport with the Horn. Their journey had been carefully calculated so that its exact center would lie several minutes after they had parted with the artifact. An act of teleportation would severely jeopardize those calculations.

To ease his mind, Gate began committing the local landscape to memory. The vast and treacherous slope was nasty enough to serve a number of creative and malicious purposes, and (entirely unbeknownst to Gate,) had actually been used by a particularly ruthless Christian Portalmancer in the early days of the Crusades who mistakenly believed he was sending his enemies to hell. (How that particular individual ever gained knowledge of a treacherous mountainside on a distant undiscovered continent is an object of some discourse among historians, but all of them agree that it was a lucky mistake on the part of the Portalmancer: had he actually been opening portals to hell, the Crusades would not have been nearly as pleasant.)

In the half-hour just before dusk Kelton's climbing seemed to pick up speed and Gate thought St. Crispin was attempting to keep pace with the cold and distant sun as it trudged westward, its retreat all the while feeding the mountain's shadow. St. Crispin clearly didn't relish the prospect of stopping for the evening. The respite was necessitated by Gate's fatigue from several hours of fighting his own instincts, which were now hoarse from a day spent screaming at him to go anywhere else. Malcom Gate was, by his unique heritage, privy to the underlying fabric of reality, and had studied the various aspects of spatial manipulation during his very long lifespan in the embrace of the Guild. What he saw next utterly confused and disoriented him. There, in a place so hellish that it had actually understudied hell during the Crusades, was a small, flat patch of green grass big enough for a man to lay down on. It resembled nothing so much as a very misplaced billiard table, and was at that moment the most comfortable looking thing Gate had ever seen. The two of them dismounted Kelton, who was already at work on a fine web. Gate's instincts abandoned their screaming for a blissful moment, only to return the very next with megaphones. Something was very wrong about this place.

"Relax Malcom, this is a safe place in spite of what your fancy eyeglasses might be telling you. I don't quite know what would happen if you tried to 'port from here. Best not test it."

St. Crispin was right. Malcom's digital visual overlay, which typically projected a series of location coordinates, was in overdrive listing strings of nonsensical variables instead. Gate reeled from the sensation, but allowed his logical mind to subvert his fear, turning it quickly into curiosity. (One does not survive centuries of acquaintance with the Shallow Guild of Bleak Sunrise without sharpening this ability to a razor's edge.)

"This place... it's... conditional?"

"That's right. This is part of the traveler's blessings. No matter how improbable, I can always find a safe place to rest, near fresh water."

Even as St. Crispin spoke, Gate noticed a small gurgling spring set neatly in the side of the mountain. The legendary rider continued as he pulled a small bedroll from his saddlebag.

"Unfortunately it is only ever big enough for one, although that has come in handy before. Luckily for me, Kelton here weaves a pretty comfortable web, so I think I'll sleep up there with the spider, unless you'd rather..."

Gate could tell St. Crispin was getting a certain amount of perverse enjoyment out of his discomfort, but his experience as a Portalmancer had given him that glint of smug satisfaction derived from such situations. St. Crispin himself was famously nauseous after his single experience with teleportation, so Gate couldn't fault him too much. Instead he let his genuine curiosity again replace his less rational emotions.

"Thank you. I'll gladly take the ground. Tell me about these traveler's blessings."

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Posted 11 October 2009 - 10:17 PM

The list of pleasant ways to wake up is notoriously short, but the smell of a campfire breakfast remains steadfastly near the top. Before he opened his eyes, Gate's senses had introduced him to wood smoke, olive oil, chorizo, and bacon. Opening his eyes he found St. Crispin crouched over a hearty Spanish migas with a small bottle of sweet Catawba wine. It had been a restless sleep; Gate's instincts had never quite given up their campaign for irrational panic. The hot breakfast did a great deal to revive both his body and his spirits. The wine was far too sweet to take more than a few sips, but the veteran team of sugar and alcohol hit his blood with a kind of welcome certainty that knew the hard part of their journey was nearly over. The vertigo of the conditional place never did subside fully, and as the softspot disappeared from view Gate felt an overwhelming sense of relief. An hour of solid climbing later he realized they were within sight of the gateway. Although Crispian St. Crispin couldn't see it, the rider nonetheless made a direct line for the door. Another one of his traveler's graces, Gate had learned, was the ability to find his way to his destination, regardless of any visual obfuscation or magical trickery. Unlike Gate's own abilities, which required clarity and focus, the traveler's blessings thrived on intuition and impulse.

The riders entered a cloudbank, which was doing its level best to obscure the exact location of the gateway. Even if Gate's HUD hadn't pinpointed it from a quarter mile away, the difference in air pressure as they crossed into the Kingdom of Storms was enough to let anyone know they had passed through some manner of threshold. The Legendary Horn of Lei Gong, being closer to home than it had in several centuries, gave a brief, joyous bellow in a voice that would make a charging bull elephant pause to reconsider.

"So much for the element of surprise," thought Gate as the saddle rocked backward- a consequence of Kelton reassuming a horizontal stance. Gate's instincts, having had quite their fill of going unheeded thank you very much, gave a little halfhearted wave and pointed downward. Gate's gaze followed, and he noticed something suggestively insubstantial about the ground. His digital overlay seconded that suggestion, with a series of footnote calculations that took a page and a half on their own, and ended as a zero sum rivalry between survivability-over-time indexes. (Gate's probability calculator lacked the finite programming language to define "certain death," but it was doing it's best to fill the lexical void.)

Stop that. St. Crispin's Voice coalesced into a series of stopgap metaphysical walls around his own mind, insinuating that Gate's growing certainty was in danger of becoming contagious. Poets are notorious for their somewhat fleeting acquaintance with the truth- a necessary consequence of their profession- but the one who said "I really don't know clouds at all" was on the right track. Nimbia's caeli firma landscape was predicated entirely on the precarious notion that it actually existed, and had a nasty habit of ceasing to do so when questioned. Philosophers were something of a rarity in the Kingdom Above the Clouds, although scarecrows were strangely prevalent. Kelton gurgled placidly, quietly reveling in the superiority of his primitive arachnid intellect. All the riders had to do was stay on his back. He certainly wasn't going to be sinking through any clouds.

One of Crispian St. Crispin's many traveler's blessings is that he can never be unhorsed. These blessings were bestowed on the day of his birth, and cannot be muted under any circumstances. On the long and generally complimentary list of things Kelton Spittol was, the word "horse" was conspicuously absent. This fact found itself at the forefront of St. Crispin's mind as a pink and possibly naked blur knocked him from the saddle. A second, smaller and prayerfully less naked blur carried Gate to what both he and his onboard AI hoped would be the ground. Kelton watched as a number of other pink things with pointy silver bits dropped from their hiding places in the surrounding scraggly forest that had insinuated itself into the later part of the paragraph. In all probability that forest had probably been there since the beginning of the chapter; waiting in quiet neglect for something exciting to happen so it could loiter nonchalantly in the background. ("Nonchalant" is a terrible way to describe anything in the Kingdom of Storms, but the forest was insistent. Odds are it'll end up looming ominously sooner or later, which will fit the mood a bit better.) Its pudgy inhabitants, Gate noted, were likely products of their ham-handed environment. These warriors- whoever they were- were plagued with a fashion sense dominated by a cumbersome sword-to-hand ratio, while masterfully ignoring the standard issues of warmth and modesty.

It is possibly worth noting here that the Horn of Lei Gong had- in the previous moments- somehow managed to slip from Gate's shoulder. Whether this was a conscious decision on the part of the Horn or merely an unlikely coincidence will later become the subject of some debate, but only one man really knows the truth and he doesn't appear in this chapter. In any case the Windeaters (those small, fat pink things standing over our heroes) weren't overly concerned with it, so you shouldn't be either. St. Crispin was busily lamenting the shortsightedness of his godparents (only one of whom was an actual god,) leaving the whole of the burden of panic to fall squarely on Malcom Gate.

"Don't move, foreigner." The scantily clad doughball standing over Gate delivered the line with nearly the same ferocity he had practiced in front of the mirror. He even rattled his swords, for effect. Gate considered his other options. He'd been overdue for a good panic for a while now.

"Well," Gate mumbled to himself, "no time like the present."

The pair of fleshy Windeaters above him had no way of knowing that "no time like the present," was something of a private joke amongst Portalmancers. (It is, admittedly, a joke only those who have glimpsed several temporal horizons simultaneously would understand.) They were on firmer ground- so to speak- when Gate, face down on the diaphanous cloudscape, grabbed both of them by the legs and became aggressively sensible.

The Chief Windeater, his pink belly slung unabashedly over his impressive triple scabbard, watched with some disdain as his son and nephew disappeared beneath the clouds. His youngest had always been something of a disappointment, but he was going to have a hard time explaining to his wife what had happened to her brother's boy. That side of the family had always been so unreasonable.

Gate watched the two Windeaters fall, frozen by the kind of curiosity that would leave Schrodinger with a room full of empty boxes. He should've teleported immediately to safety, but the fact that the pair seemed more disappointed than terrified piqued his interest. He calculated the distance to the ground and was astounded to find that he had a good six minutes of freefall. He decided to go ahead and ask.

"Excuse me, I don't mean to pry, but shouldn't you be screaming?"

"Don't see what the point is," grumbled the taller fellow. "It's not like we've got a choice, is it?"

"You could... that is... is it possible for you to ride the lightning?"

"Gravity seems to be doing a fine job of getting us there on its own."

"Where, exactly?"

"Had a neighbor who moved his family to Lower Nimbia," the slightly rounder gentleman offered. "Bought a book on logic and read it out loud after dinner one night."

"One of my brothers ended up down here. Maybe I'll look him up."

Gate, who had originally intended to send these round, melancholy warriors plummeting to their imminent deaths suddenly felt sorry for them.

"Couldn't you just climb back up?"

"Won't work. Once you've gone through, the clouds remember."

Gate considered this. "Oh. Right, well I'd best be off," and he was.

Concerned readers should take some comfort in knowing the pair will eventually land miles apart and, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to locate one another, will open competing haberdasheries. The pair of pudgy cousins never learned the fate of the rest of their tribe, who- as it turns out- would've all preferred the Dreaded Descent to their own shorter and less hat-filled ending.

#4 Guest_Ivan_*

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Posted 29 October 2009 - 02:48 PM

It is something of a shame that you were so focused on Gate's conversation in freefall, because you missed some really spectacular swordplay above the clouds. The forest loomed (see, I told you,) over St. Crispin as he traded thrusts and parries with one Windeater after another. Theirs was clearly a culture with a deep respect and admiration for the blade, and as such they didn't seem to mind throwing themselves at such a skilled craftsman en masse. It was considered a great honor to be killed by a swordsman of such fearsome prowess, and the throngs of pink bodies were intent on honoring St. Crispin just as he had done a number of their comrades. There were rather more of them than he had first thought, nearly a dozen slain so far with no perceivable loss to their numbers.

St Crispin's mystic rapier was intended for sportsman's dueling, and as such was enchanted to allow him to quietly measure his opponent's physical and mental fatigue. While useful in an extended duel, it was something of a mocking distraction now. The huntsman reached for his pistol, and put a respectable hole in the nearest Windeater. As those versed in the traditions of bladeculture can tell you, the discharging of firearms in battle is tantamount to blasphemy. (Historically, this has meant a lot of the more refined societies to favor the sword have been wiped out rather hastily.) The honor of intention left the assembled attackers so quickly it actually made an audible noise. (It would take an experienced phonologist to dissect the sanctimonious accusations of iconoclasm, to locate and identify the subtle susurrations impugning dignity. It was all very delicate and layered, and the effect was remarkable for those who know what to look for. The noise was "Graaaaaaahr!")

A casual observer might note, at this point, that things looked rather grim for Crispian St. Crispin, fabled rider, huntsman, and duelist. Two of them did, in fact. They were both, in their own time, deciding to drop the "observer" sobriquet in favor of something more exciting- like interloper- but at least one of them had decided he was going to hold on to the whole "casual" bit for a good while yet.

The waves advanced, but found themselves facing a second swordsman, then a third. The one in the mask seemed familiar, somehow, if a little young. The other one, the handsome grinning man with the fiery red tresses, stood holding his twin goblinwrought blades in a way that inflected equal parts gallantry and piracy. The way he moved seemed to insinuate that once you got him started, he'd go about swashbuckling- trading witty repartee, jumping off things and laughing haughtily, the whole bit- until someone was full of holes. He's Todd Redbeard, a man with a frightening variety of nicknames- both flattering and otherwise- but just now he was favoring "The Casual Interloper." As you're about to see, he's something of an expert in perforation. The other one is still wearing his mask, and it wouldn't do to ruin the surprise just yet. After all, his young highness is known to have a wicked temper.

True to form Todd leapt into the midst of the Windeaters with a hearty chuckle. The Kingdom of Storms' cloudscape, as has been previously established, exists as long as one believes in it. (Provided that belief is both vague and mildly disinterested. In Nimbia the philosophically inclined tend to trudge through several inches of cloudmire, while the terminally distracted can't leave footprints with anything short of a hammer and chisel.) Todd, who was known as The Magnificent Bastard on those occasions when he really felt he'd earned it (i.e. every day,) sunk nearly a foot into the ground, and then shot into the air with such alarming confidence that the two nearest Windeaters had time to ponder his trajectory before they realized they were dead. Oysters were delicious, Todd mused, but just now he preferred that the world was his trampoline.

The other swordsman, the masked youth who seemed to think covering his face could do anything to hide his princely countenance, stood back-to-back with the improbably still-alive St. Crispin. The two met wave after wave of assailants with a practiced swordsmanship that bespoke near fanatical devotion to perfection. Still, combined, they couldn't touch Todd's numbers. If St. Crispin and his young highness were skilled artisans, Todd was Michelangelo himself. Several Windeaters actually wept openly as they locked blades with him, feeling they had glimpsed the very zenith of perfection. It was a sentiment he shared, and had things continued in that fashion they may well have laid down arms and declared Todd their new god. Unfortunately, one of the attacking tribe got too close to Prince Squall, Heir to the Throne of the Kingdom of Storms, and drew blood. The prince erupted into a fit of adolescent rage that was quite unbecoming of a future monarch, and tore off his mask. The remaining Windeaters cowered in fear as he raised both hands. Too late, some of them began to reconsider the benefits of a life in Lower Nimbia. There was a wet popping sound, like a shower of water balloons on a bed of nails, and there were no more Windeaters.

The swordsmen stood in silence for a moment. Kelton, hanging from a neighboring tree, preened quietly. Next to him Malcom Gate clung to a ragged branch, doing his damnedest to look anywhere but down and failing about once every eight seconds. Eventually the Magnificent Bastard spoke.

"Well that's a pity. They really liked me."

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Posted 10 November 2009 - 12:28 AM

"It was over here, dad! I just know it!"

Prince Gale, Son of Stormforge and Crowned Prince of the Kingdom of Storms tugged his father's massive arm with a quiet insistence that was far more insistent than it was quiet. The mighty king was called the Voice of Thunder, The Sovereign of Nimbia, He Who Commands the Wind, and Beloved Father. The last title trumped all else- for the moment anyway, and the monarch of the vast and mystical Kingdom Above the Clouds allowed himself to be pulled unceremoniously forward by his eleven year old son. He knew the way, of course. The Horn had been calling to him steadily ever since it had left the Shallow Guild of Bleak Sunrise a day and a half ago, but he was somewhat intrigued by Gale's ability to sense it as well. Gale's older brother, Squall, may feel drawn to the area without understanding why, but it was only natural for the future monarch of Nimbia to have an innate connection to the artifact. The young Prince Gale shouldn't have felt anything. Stormforge stopped his thoughts before they reached any logical conclusion on the subject. Not out of fear, mind you- the clouds wouldn't dare drop a member of the royal family- but because he had run that race enough times before and his thoughts were now used to coming in a distant second. It wouldn't do for the King to assume anything. When you assume, the king knew the old saying, you make an Assu out of Me. (The braying Assu was particularly zaftig beast of burden native to Nimbia. Any comparisons drawn to it were not meant to be complimentary. )

"Come ON dad! Squall's already there!"

Now this was strange. Stormforge looked forward, his gaze cresting the next two hills and piercing several hundred yards of dense forest. His eldest was there, in point of fact, along with his Physical Arts tutor and the Guildsmen who had brought the Horn. He looked back at his other son. It's all so clear to him, he thought. Then he took that thought and outpaced it soundly. He got where it was trying to go before it had a chance to get its shoes tied. All things would be given due consideration, in due time. There were more pressing matters at hand. He pressed forward, his younger son chiding him to hurry even as the boy struggled to keep pace with his father's great strides.

The King of Storms entered the clearing majestically, although it isn't like he had a choice. Majesty radiated from him in waves, faster than light and far more impressive. (It is entirely true by the by- the bit about majesty being faster than light. Some men are noticeably kings, you can tell just by looking at them. With Stormforge, you knew it before you looked at him, the thought had somehow settled down in your brain and raised a family before the light even got to your eyes. By the time your brain was through mucking about with synapses and drawing obvious conclusions, distant descendants of that original thought were arguing over whether or not it had ever walked upright. If royalty bore anything other than a metaphorical resemblance to radiation, Gavin Stormforge would've glowed in the dark.) Kelton, whose manners were invariably better than the rest of the assembled party, dropped reverently from his thread and bowed forward on four legs. St. Crispin and Todd, quick on the uptake, both took a knee. The boys were immune to this sort of ceremony, of course, Gale ignored the pomp, focusing his youthful excitement on the Horn, as Squall edged nervously behind the nearest tree. Malcom Gate did his best while hugging a branch.

Stormforge regarded Gate with as much amusement as fit his station which, since he was King, was all of it.

"Fallen through already, have you? Ha! That's got to be some kind of record. Don't worry my boy, the clouds won't drop you again."

There was something about the monarch's voice, something in the completely offhand way he said it that suggested the clouds didn't really have a choice in the matter. It put Gate at ease for the first time since the beginning of the journey. Then there was the added fact that the King had called him "my boy," which is a term Gate hadn't had attached to him for a good five centuries (although he had admittedly spent a couple of those not existing.) He placed himself promptly on the ground, not wanting to display any lack of confidence in the Lord of this Realm. Gate stepped gingerly over what had once been the chief Windeater.

The King had been diplomatically avoiding the scores of deflated bodies lying just below the clouds. He knew what had happened, he had felt Squall command the imprisoned winds, he had heard the brief anguish of the Windeaters, (creations of his late grandfather that nobody else had ever quite understood,) and he tasted the confused and bitter mistrals as they cowered around him. Freed for the first time in a generation, the penitent winds bowed and scraped at his feet, awaiting further judgment. The King's eyes settled on Squall. Legend says that it is impossible to lie to the King of Storms in his own kingdom. Todd stepped forward, ready to test that statement for accuracy.

"Your highness, if I may?"

"Thank you Todd, but I want to hear it from my son. Tell me what happened, Squall."

The elder prince's elocution gave the impression he'd taken language lessons from a hailstorm. (This was more or less the case.) "Theyattackedme. Theyslashedmyarm. It'snotfair. Seelook. Plusithurts! Anyway it isn't allowed, attacking royalty! Plus the spider rider is a foreign emissary, so that's two laws they broke."

"You were wearing a mask! That's cheating." The younger Prince of Nimbia invoked the time honored right of little brothers everywhere. Certain truths are universal, even for the residents of a castle in the clouds. "I don't see what the big deal is, anyway," Gale chimed after a moment's pause, "They're not completely dead. You can put the winds back inside, Father. Look, it's easy."

Stormforge looked at his younger son with the regal equivalent of shock and awe. (For those unfamiliar with Feist's Royal Spectrum of Emotional Equivalence, it resembles the Common Man's expression for "vague interest.") All around him, the errant winds of generations past were rushing back into their fleshy prisons. Slowly, the Windeaters rose, although it was clear to anyone watching that they were not moving under their own power. Gate decided that watching a Nimbian Prince explode several enemies was downright pleasant compared to the same scene in reverse. The awkward, excruciating contortions of the (nearly) dead returning to (nearly) life were enough to wipe the smile off even Todd's face. "If Agony and Choreography ever fall in love," Gate thought, "Their daughter's first steps will look like this."

Gale's face turned from a picture of bright innocence into one of horrified confusion. Too late he realized that it wasn't as easy as putting the pieces back together, even if he could see them all. He reached out to the spirits within the wind, trying to ease some of their pain. It was a gesture of inherent nobility, one that earned him a painful backlash of sympathetic energies. The boy doubled over in pain, his eyes filling with tears. In spite of his own suffering, he tried again, focusing on The Chief Windeater, who managed to regain enough of his former consciousness to recognize He Who Commands the Winds. The Chief somehow achieved the semblance of a bow in between convulsions.

"M'Lord. Please! We did not know!"

Stormforge frowned. The Windeaters hadn't deserved this fate, the Shallow Guild's ambassadors shouldn't have been attacked, and to top it all off, his sons seemed to have been born in the wrong order. This wasn't an appropriate homecoming for The Legendary Horn of Lei Gong.

"True," the Horn whispered to him, "but your solution is as elegant as the situation allows. We could expect no less from the Storm's Forge."

Gale stopped crying. Was it just his father's imagination, or was he listening to the Horn's voice too? The King turned his palm upward. There was no flash and no audible noise. The Windeaters, and the imprisoned mistrals were simply gone. The only evidence of their passing was a single elegant blade, now resting in the king's outstretched hand. Everyone waited, the air of Ceremony hung thick. The nascent blade needed a name.

"Wind Eater, the Zephyr's Fall."

Both Gate and St. Crispin recognized The Voice, although it filled the air with a distinctly noble overtone series no Shallow Guild member could hope to replicate. Wind Eater was now an inherent piece of Nimbia, and the Guildsmen began to understand the true depth of the connection between the royal family and the kingdom itself. A piece of the King was in that blade. A piece of him was in every molecule of the Nimbian cloudscape, in the very air they were breathing. The very air they had been breathing, at least, since this was one of those spectacles that invoke a brief biological aversion to oxygen. The King took a moment to slide the blade lovingly into an elaborate, jeweled scabbard before addressing his awestruck guests.

"Welcome, friends, to fair Nimbia. I do apologize for our somewhat nontraditional reception. Let us put this messy business behind us. Allow me to greet you in a manner more in keeping with your honorable purpose. A feast, for the brave men who have restored the Legendary Horn of Lei Gong to its rightful place." Even as he spoke, Gale handed him the Horn of his Ancestors. "Surely you're aware that the one who returns The Horn is to be granted one request?"

St. Crispin, following the King's lead, rebounded with a good deal more grace and aplomb than should have been reasonably expected. "It would be an honor to dine with the royal family, sire." His diplomatic instincts kicked in. The King wanted them to ask for the sword. St. Crispin knew this. He also knew exactly which Guild secrets he would be risking by bringing such an object back into the Guildhouse. He continued, unabated, "As for such a request, perhaps his majesty would grace us with one of his famous stories after dinner?"

The king's knowing smile suggested that if he ever wanted to pry Guild secrets, he'd simply ask the Horn. "You flatter my own humble abilities. Of course. I know the perfect story."

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