christopherhoward - 03/12/2003 22:25:41

Hello, folks. As I mentioned in another thread, some time ago I wrote a large portion of the book "Keys to the Kingdom." It looks highly unlikely that this particular book will ever see the light of day, so I am posting the opening short story here for your amusement.

Please note that I never signed a contract for this work and never received the traditional "kill fee" for a cancelled book, nor have I signed a non-disclosure form, so this is post is solely at my discretion. My posting this story should in no way be taken as a commentary on the ultimate fate of Changeling as a game (simply put, I don't know what WW is planning long-term here).

The story is somewhat long (almost 4,000) so it will take multiple postings. It is an extension of a much shorter piece that I wrote for Denizens, cut for space, and then posted here about two or three years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Sincerely,

Christopher Howard

Keys to the Kingdom

Little fellow, you're amusing
Stop before you end by losing
Your shirt:
Run along to mother, Gus,
Those who interfere with us
Get hurt.

Honest virtue, old wives prattle,
Always wins the final battle.
Dear, Dear!
Life's exactly what it looks,
Love may triumph in the books,
Not here.

We're not joking, we assure you:
Those who rode this way before you
Died hard.
What? Still spoiling for a fight?
Well, you've asked for it all right:
On guard!

Always hopeful, aren't you? Don't be.
Night is falling and it won't be
Long now:
You will never see the dawn,
You will wish you'd not been born.
And how!


— Song of the Ogres, W.H. Auden

The Triumph Casque

Clamorous. Boisterous. The great cave resounded with light and life and noise, and Cyrrax the Ogre — troll killer, feared in six counties — was more than a trifle nervous. He hated this place. Small folk, thousands of them, flooded around him, some with a slow shuffling gait, others with a purposeful stride. Everyone seemed to know where they were going, except for him. A moment ago it had been the great moving metal stair, a magic contrivance that had taken the ogre and his companions down, down, down to face the cavern’s iron portals. Cyrrax had wanted to smash them asunder, as he once had shattered the doors of Sepulcher Keep, but Lojack had stopped him. Waving his hand over the portal, Lojack pushed his way easily through the rotating metal bars, beckoning for Cyrrax and his two other companions to follow. Cyrrax complied, but with difficulty; his great frame towered over everyone else in this puny-damn world and its doors were poorly suited to accommodate someone of his bulk. Lojack was one of those pissant nockers and had said that the great caves were of his kind’s craft, which explained Cyrrax’s dislike of the place. Cyrrax did not hold with nockers and their tricks, but had to admit that even Lojack was preferable to his other two companions.

"Danforth" and "Sugar-Lips." What kind of names were those for redcaps? Danforth was a toady little fart and didn't say much, for which Cyrrax was grateful. Sugar- Lips (so named because she poured piles of sugar on everything she ate) was apparently damming it up with that kiss-ass Viktor back at Harroth’s place. She had winked at Cyrrax earlier, but he didn’t like redcaps no- how and wasn’t about to sweat up the straw with one of them. The redcaps with whom Cyrrax was familiar — the Storm Dancers from Kureksarra, or even those sissies from the Middlemarch — would eat these little pissers alive. Of course Cyrrax had to admit that he wasn’t feeling too well himself here. A good meter shorter than he usually was, he still towered over everyone else, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make him nervous. It was the "och-man" or some such. Cyrrax hadn’t been listening too carefully when his employer, Lady Eithlinn, had explained how dreams got smaller in this, the "true world." Well, frammit, true world or no, it was a job, wasn’t it? That meant Cyrrax would just have to brace his bollocks for what was to come and get on with it. Hell, the key better be worth hanging with this bunch of losers.

The Triumph Casque of Sorrows. It was the so-called "Chicanery Key" he had come here to find and Cyrrax had yet to fail when gold was on the line. On the great platform, he, his companions and about a thousand others waited. Cyrrax smacked his lips as he looked around him. It had been some years since he’d had a chance to eat man-flesh and some of the folk around him looked particularly appetizing. Later, he promised himself, he would cage a few and grind their bones to make his bread. The men-folk anyway. The women here had an altogether different appeal, one that both excited and frightened the slow-witted ogre. Cyrrax squinted at one of the nearby chimerical boxes mounted on the wall. He had seen one back before the metal stair, but hadn’t had time to look carefully. In the box, a man was smiling at a black-haired woman who reminded Cyrrax a little of the Lady Eithlinn, though her beauty was nowhere near as frightening as the sidhe’s. The man leaned closer, closer, closer toward the woman, lips parted for a kiss, when she suddenly recoiled in revulsion. The man looked down sharply, his face contorting into a mask of embarrassment as he spotted several prominent white flakes on his shoulder. "Problem dandruff ruining your love life? Tegron shampoo will wash all your troubles away," a voice from the window confided. Cyrrax eyed his own perpetually flake-covered shoulders with sudden concern. Tasty head-flakes never seemed a problem before, but now he wasn’t so sure.

"You like her, eh? The woman in the tell-a-vision? Chimeras. Dream-craft, you know. Nocker works in Japan. You diddle the box right and the chimera come out to furk you. When we have some time, I’ll show you how it works," interjected Lojack with a sly wink. Cyrrax always suspected Lojack was making fun of him, but for now he would let it pass.

"For now, though, keep your furking mind on your job. It is this moment and place that Harroth said would be most propitious for finding the Chicanery Key, but stay alert; Kosa’s bastards will be here too. Trolls, maybe two or three. The scuttlebutt in the barracks is that Kosa wants to use the keys to return the Tuatha dé Danaan. That's a wind that won't blow any of us any good. Friggin' trolls. That’s why we have you here," Lojack laughed. Cyrrax gave a half-hearted grin in return. Killing was always good, but his eyes returned unbidden to the magic box…

A clanking, screeching noise presently jostled Cyrrax from his reverie. The great wyrm, a clashing monstrosity as huge as any he had ever seen, thundered from its hole at the end of the cavern. A thousand silver scales flashed by, accompanied by a hot, roaring wind. Cyrrax instinctively reached for his great mace, but Sugar-Lips grabbed his arm. "Save it for later, big-boy. Soon. Soon," she grinned, exposing twin rows of grinding teeth. The wyrm slowed to a stop and its sides burst asunder, disgorging a torrent of humanity who pushed past him with nary a glance. Suddenly the crowd was surging in the other direction and Sugar-Lips gave him a shove — into the belly of the beast. The wyrm’s stomach was surprisingly bright and people jockeyed for the benches that incongruously lined its gut. Not Lojack though, and so, apparently, not Cyrrax. Lojack had his damned pendulum out again and was pushing his way through the crowd; the redcaps were suddenly nowhere in sight.

Cyrrax knew what was expected of him, and made sure that the little folk didn’t get in the nocker’s way, roughly jostling them to the side as Lojack opened the portals that led from one belly, to the next, to the next. Cyrrax caught a glance of himself in the great glass panes that only narrowly concealed the roaring darkness that hurdled past as the wyrm crashed blindly toward who knew where. A large red-faced man with a bristling ebon beard and balding pate stared back at him. He wore strange black leather garments and was only dimly recognizable as the ogre he saw whenever he looked into the Silver River in his Kureksarra home. Eithlinn had told him that he would appear different here, to shield him from human curiosity, but if he squinted just right he could see his more familiar ram horns and bronze-armor behind the reflection.

"That boy, over there. He has the key, or at least had it a short while ago…" The pendulum was straining madly at its chain and Cyrrax followed Lojack’s gaze. Seated inconspicuously in a corner was a small, rat-faced boy, and even here, so far from home, Cyrrax believed he could spot a skin-changer when he saw one. "Little pooka furker looks like he’s on another planet," said Lojack. "See what you can do about it, eh?" Cyrrax laughed. Here, at last, in the midst of all this confusion, was something he was good at. Surging forward, roughly pushing a small elderly man out of the way, he swooped the startled childling up with one swift motion, his great hand clenching vise-like around the boy’s tiny waist. The crowd in the car gasped audibly, but none, it seemed, dared to challenge the leather-clad giant.

"Where is it, you little bastard? The key?" snarled Lojack from Cyrrax’s elbow, as he began to rummage through the terrified boy’s jacket pockets.

"Key? Key? I got no key," stammered the childling, which was about what the ogre expected from the lying little pooka turd. The boy was terrified, but there was a sly look of defiance in his eyes that the ogre didn’t like. He squeezed harder and the boy gave a yelp, evoking a sharp laugh from the nocker. The child fumbled in a side pocket and hurled a small ring of keys to the ground, but Lojack wasn’t impressed. "Not those! Don’t furk with us! The crystal, the Chicanery Key, you nasty little monkey. We’ll tear you to ribbons right here if we have to…" The nocker’s last threat died with a choke as a silver blade abruptly protruded from between his ribs. The blade was wielded, not by a troll warrior as Cyrrax had at first half expected, but by a small, pleasant looking old man with comical gray whiskers, scarcely taller than the child he was protecting.

"Bullying a child? Are there no depths to which Balor’s lackeys won't stoop? Tartuffe, captain of the boggan 3rd Watch, I am, I am. Release the boy, good friend ogre, and you may yet return to the Splintered Peaks from which you came," said the little man with a grim equanimity that boiled Cyrrax’s butt. Not… a… troll, but a crop-grubber from the Fields? No insult could be worse. With a roar and a fluid motion of his free hand, Cyrrax loosed his mace from his belt and lunged at the small man, taking care not to ease his grip on the boy.

The crowded car milled about him as the witless humans ran for safety. Cyrrax’s mace didn’t find its mark, however. The small man was gone and a great blade expertly deflected the ogre’s mace. Now suddenly there was a troll before him! No, not one, but two, a man and a woman, both silver-clad and wearing the red-charging bull livery of Harroth’s blood-enemy, the hated Kosa. Cyrrax grinned. This was what he lived for and leave it to the honor-bound blue-skins to give him a warning shot first. Idiots. Cyrrax thrust the pooka- brat forward to serve as an impromptu shield; let the oh-so honorable protectors of the fae cut through that if they want. Freely flapping material betrayed the truth of his folly, however, and Cyrrax’s expression grew slack with confusion. Rat-boy was gone and all he held was the child’s empty jacket. Another glance betrayed the pooka’s true whereabouts, at the opposite end of the chamber, making for the door in the company of the gray-haired boggan. His prize had eluded him…

"Haar-gaaahh!" Rage replaced bewilderment in the ogre’s thick skull and he howled his war cry, an exclamation feared throughout the Kureksarra Planes. Troll moron number one, the man, was edging in cautiously with his short-sword while his female companion, a violet-tressed giantess, lunged in for the kill. Cyrrax was ready for her though. Swinging his great mace in an underhanded fashion, he’d smash her rib cage clean open right through her fancy silver armor. The woman was expecting the blow, however, and nimbly doubled-back by shifting her momentum around one of the ubiquitous metal poles that rib-like lined the wyrm’s innards. Suddenly it was the male troll who was in the lead, peppering the ogre’s arm with a series of three heavy blows. Two resounded off Cyrrax’s bronze armor, but the third penetrated, and he felt a reassuring warmth welling against his skin. First blood to the trolls. Good. It only made him mad, and anger was one emotion the ogre knew well.

No one ever gave much credit to ogre intelligence, but the truth, Cyrrax knew, was that many ogres were at least a damn-sight craftier than people thought. The two trolls were obviously waiting for him to lose his shit and charge headlong into them like a tusk-beast. Instead, dropping rat-boy's jacket, he bit into a special piece of wood he'd prepared for just such an occasion. Almost instantly, a strong but supple sheathe of protective silvery bark blossomed from a hundred different points on his body — just to make things more interesting. Now it was the trolls' turn to lose their heads. That was just an expression for now, but in a minute Cyrrax fancied they would lose them for real. The male troll stabbed up and into Cyrrax's belly for a killing blow, but only succeeded in ripping away a huge section of silver bark and renting the armor below. He'd had his shot and now it was Cyrrax's turn. The ogre's mace caught the troll squarely in the chest, flipping him up, backward and clear through the window of the speeding beast. A flash of crimson gore and a sickening series of rattling thuds heralded the troll warrior's final exit from the world. Cyrrax spun back fast, knowing that the woman would be on him and hot to avenge her slain kinsman. The woman stood frozen. Her face, clenched and tear streaked, was turning midnight blue with sorrow and growing fury. In another second, Cyrrax knew he would have a "situation" on his hands, but a second was all he needed.

Starting in for the kill, Cyrrax suddenly realized that his feet could not move. A quick glance down and he saw that the stone (or whatever it was) that served as the floor in the wyrm's belly had come to life and wrapped around his boots. The witch had glued his feet to the ground! Looking back up, he saw the grim face of the avenging fury, eyes flashing, teeth barred. Her blade was pulled back for a killing blow to Cyrrax's throat and he realized there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. Suddenly, however, there was a flash of flurried motion behind her. The absent Sugar-Lips had scrambled up the giantess's back and was working her black scythe-like dagger through the leather armor protecting the woman's throat. Danforth had appeared at her side, ham-stringing her with his axe. The little bastards were good for something after all.

With a monstrous effort Cyrrax tore his feet clear from the floor and bounded past the troll and the two redcaps. Let his companions deal with her in their own fashion; he was going for the key. The chamber had all but cleared of passengers, but as he neared the glass and metal portal he could see slack-jawed faces in the next room trying to decipher what they were seeing. He could still hear the sounds of a struggle behind him. The giantess was down, but not out. No matter. Opening the door, he smashed the two nearest onlooker's heads together with bone-shattering force. Leaping straight through the next crowded car, people fled before him like leaves in the wind. The feel of the wyrm's motion told him that he was heading for the tail of the beast, and he could just picture his pooka and boggan quarry trying to jump out its arse in order to escape. The passengers in the next two chambers were less aware of what had been going on, and took a little more convincing to make way, but still he made swift progress, his eyes straining to catch sight of his prey.

He found them — or at least the boggan anyway — against the back wall of the last chamber. It was strangely devoid of passengers and the boggan, far from quailing in fear, was calmly smoking a straight pipe-like device. The wyrm's "arse" was open and a small sliver of turquoise hung by a silver chain from above the back door. Cyrrax had not seen the Chicanery Key, but had heard it described by Lady Eithlinn well enough to recognize it. If the little Field grubber thought he was going to trick him into charging headlong for the key and over the side, however, he didn't know Cyrrax. The boggan had nowhere to run and the ogre decided he would take great pleasure in gutting the little runt, maybe saving his carcass as a snack for later. Then he would pluck the key at his leisure. A purposeful, measured stride brought him into the car whereupon he abruptly fell hurtling headlong into darkness as the entire chamber melted away like a dream. Cyrrax hit the ground hard, bouncing three times as the great wyrm roared on without him. Gaining consciousness minutes later, he painfully pushed himself into an upright position just in time to see another great wyrm clashing toward him from the darkness. This was going to hurt…

Cyrrax had had better days. It had taken some time to drag his battered bones from the tunnels of the wyrms and even longer to find one of the tell-phone devices and to remember how to use it to call for a ride. Lady Eithlinn's countryside manse was as gloomy and as undersized as he remembered it. Viktor met him at the front door and seemed to be a real sport about the fact that Cyrrax's companions (including Viktor's lover) had not returned and were assumed dead. Down, but not out, indeed. Of course the ogre knew at least enough about redcaps to figure that Viktor was doing a slow burn and plotting revenge of some sort. Enough time for that later though, for now his "masters" called.

Lady Eithlinn, coldly terrifying as usual, was, apparently, not in any mood to hear his explanations or stories of disappearing passenger cars. Cyrrax sweated and squirmed like a small child. How? How could creatures, so pink and frail and small put such fear in him? There were only two of them and Lady Eithlinn was concentrating her discomforting gaze on him and ignoring Viktor, who was no doubt smirking behind him. "Kiss-ass, sycophantic little futhermu — "

"The thing of it is," continued Lady Eithlinn, burgundy and black voile draping her slender frame. Her black hair glistened and shimmered in the firelight; Cyrrax liked the hair. Her sharp crimson lips bowed in a sardonic smile and her scarlet eyes bored into his brain.

"The thing of it is that King Harroth has been more than generous with you in terms of time and resources," she said, eyeing the silent, sickly looking man (also draped in red) who sat languorously behind her, wearing a pale silver circlet around his brow. "It was a simple enough matter: find a single key, which is of… sentimental value to his majesty, and return it to this place. You had the able assistance of three of our best agents and yet still you failed, losing all of your men on the way. What do you think we should do about such gross incompetence? What would you do?"

Cyrrax knew. He had seen this scene played out before with this former commander, Umlaüt o the Pretentious, and was not about to end up in the Tower of Screams like him. Besides, he had had just about enough today and, in his slow ogrish way, felt that — on top of everything else — these were insults no self- respecting troll-slayer should tolerate. He decided, what the hell, maybe he should just roll the bones and take his chances. In his heart of hearts he had always suspected the sidhe were soft under their fearsome exteriors. Maybe he would have a chance to find out. There were only two of them, small and frail, and they did not seem so fearsome here in their freehold as they did in the deeper realms. Two swift sweeps with his great ax and it would be King Cyrrax (The Stout? The Big? Well, there would be time for that later.) who ruled this freehold. He had never e’t sidhe before, and they looked tender and sweet. He’d take the man’s silver crown for a bracelet and make ogre-mittens from the woman’s pretty, pretty hair. Lady Eithlinn arched her eyebrow and awaited his reply.

With a deafening bellow, Cyrrax drew his mace and charged. The woman simply stood there as he closed the distance between them (probably paralyzed with fear). He hefted his mace, but something was wrong. Great arms that could fell a tree with a single blow could barely lift the weapon. His stomach felt all queasy and watery; his vision blurred, fixating tunnel-like on the pale king. Cyrrax spied his hand, once pulsing with endless strength, thin and so frail that his brass gauntlet slid down around his bony, wrinkled arm. Excrescence and putrescence, his flesh rotted and withered as a hundred seasons passed in mere seconds. The wailing of time outraged rang in his fleshless skull and gnawed at his pitted, yellowed skeleton before his spirit was finally able to go on its way — to reincarnation, damnation or whatever fate awaited an ogre’s soul.

As Cyrrax collapsed into a pile of dust, Lady Eithlinn turned her charming smile on Viktor, scion of the Hand of Vengeance. His toothy smirk had turned into a wan little frown. "Never send an ogre to do a redcap’s work," she sighed. "My apologies to you and your corby for having to tolerate the lout. We have new information on the key's passage and you have our full confidence. We will speak again anon." A stiff but nervous bow saw Viktor from the room.

Lady Eithlinn considered her lordly guest, sitting on cushions now frayed and moldering with age. Mute as ever, silent as death, his intentions were nonetheless clear. Nightmare made flesh, he was perhaps as old as the High Lord Li-Tili himself and a true child of the Fomorians. It was only the unbelievable failure of the keremet Soul Bearers a few months ago that forced him to hide his light under a bushel so far. His forces were divided now, between those hunting the keys to the Triumph Casque and those seeking the mortal soul taken in exchange for the body Harroth's essence now inhabited. Harroth might have two of the nine keys, making him the prime shareholder in the Triumph Casque, but as long as the mortal's soul was missing, Harroth was vulnerable. At least she was reasonably sure that Kosa's team did not get hold of the Chicanery Key, despite Cyrrax's failure. Still, she meant what she had said. Viktor was competent and tenacious; recovering the Chicanery Key was just a matter of time, and then they would go further abroad for the others. As for her? She would tread carefully around Harroth, for here was old power. The Evernight approached and Lady Eithlinn smiled.



Copyright © 2000, Beau Brown