Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

The Thing About Family

Viveka doesn’t recall having put up any beetroot, but there it is in the pantry. She snatches it from the shelf and turns back to the old woman. “It appears that we do. Good fortune for you.”

The woman cracks a twisted, sardonic grin, exposing half-rotted teeth and a pitted tongue. “Thought you might.”

“Is there anything else we’ll need?”

“If you’ve got a bit of smetana, that would be lovely.”

“I don’t think I’m familiar with that, grandmother.”

“It’s a kind of preserved cream. Fermented. Sour.”

Viveka shakes her head. “Cream is hard to come by here.”

The old woman waves her hand dismissively. “No matter, it’s not a necessity. It’ll be fine without it. You’ll want to add your bones to the stock pot now. We’ve got to boil them awhile.” Viveka does as she’s bid: adding a pinch here and a dash there, slicing the onions just so, carefully shredding the cabbage. Sometimes she hums or sings snatches of dimly remembered songs, sometimes she plies the old woman with questions.

“Ceseer told me you’ll be leaving soon, grandmother.”

The old woman nods. “I am. I’ve received a message from my son, and I’m off to see him.”

“Oh, that sounds exciting,” Viveka titters. “Has it been long?”

“Some time, yes.”

“Are you excited?”

“I’d say more curious.”

Viveka tilts her head. “Curious?”

“Hmph. Well, last I’d heard the peasants had poisoned him, stabbed and shot him, and then drowned him in an icy cold river.” She grins again.

“That’s horrible!”

She shrugs. “No doubt he’d earned it.”

“Are you going to nurse him back to health, then? He must be in quite a state after all that.”

The old woman smiles again, and it is a winter smile: bitter cold. “I suspect I’m to finish the peasants’ job.” Viveka, uncertain how to respond, returns her attention to the pot. For a time, the only sound in the room is the burbling water on the stove. It rapidly grows uncomfortable.

“What… what is your son’s name, grandmother?” She hopes to steer the conversation to more pleasant shores.

“Grigory.”

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Obeisance

As he emerges from the portal there is, as always, the cold; the unnatural stillness of the air; and the featureless black of a dead sky. With a resolute jaw he hikes his sack over his shoulder, and sets out. There is no path marked, not even the telltale discoloring of many feet passing, but he is not concerned with losing his way. All of his kind know the path, without question or error. How could they not?

The walk takes as long as it takes. The Mercane know this increment intimately, and even use it as a measure of time amongst themselves: a hapilgrim. At the end there is an anvil, a well-worn hammer, and the Pit. There is also another figure, tall and blue and bedecked in fine silk robes. Niallpeneton—and Zilvazaarat is surprised to find himself relieved. He usually prefers to make the pilgrimage alone, only him and his thoughts in the somber silence. But he was held captive too long, and too many friends have passed beyond his knowledge in that time, for him to not feel some small comfort at a familiar face.

Neither of them speaks. No one ever does here. There is no law forbidding it, there would be no sanctions levied for breaking the taboo. But there isn’t a Mercane alive who wouldn’t resort to trading grain and livestock before uttering a word here—excepting, of course, the Obeisance.

Niallpeneton holds a wand in his hand. It is beautiful: dark wood with hair-thin lines of grain carving whirls and eddies across its surface; studded with tiny precious stones that shimmer even in the dead air of this place. Zilvazaarat bows to him, then sets his sack on the ground. He retrieves from it an axe, forged from a single block of steel and with a hilt wrapped in soft, blue leather. Tiny blue sparks play across its edge. Niallpeneton graciously waves Zilvazaarat forward.

Zilvazaarat places the axe upon the anvil and takes up the hammer. Its weight is as familiar to him as the weight of his own arm. He cannot count the number of times he has raised it, the times he has stood in this place, as he does now. And, as always, the words come to him as he raises it. The words that no Mercane need ever be taught. The only words, in the final reckoning, that ever matter.

“I commit these energies to the Slain Goddess, that with them She may find her candle back through the darkness into the Light of the Living. So that once more all the many worlds may quake at her footfalls, and at the coming of we, her faithful and her devoted.”

He brings the hammer down, and the axe shatters.

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The Hour Of Memories

The baroque abomination of resinous filigree and squamous tendrils of flowering vine that serves as Yrax’s clock strikes. It interjects two tinny, wavering notes into the still air. Zadkiel always called this the Hour of Memory; but then, he would. Yrax, for his part, finds memory to be much like his clock: it goes sour and runs down the longer you hang on to it. He really should commit that thing to the garbage hole.

The mug held between his hands—really more of a large soup bowl—barely steams now. Viveka will pout at him over it; it was one of the few occasions he’s allowed her to add a bit of honey to it, and yet he’s let it go cold. Ripples appear across the surface of the tea, cascading side to side, interfering and confusing one another; the base of the mug clatters against the table. With effort Yrax steadies his hands, and the rattling ceases. Out in the distant hallway, the heavy footsteps of his fossilized guards retreat.

The Hour of Memories.

They are unwelcome guests, and like many of their ilk stay long past their use. Once, when Yrax was younger and the betrayal fresher, his memories spurred him from conquest to conquest, relentlessly goading him to create anew the kingdom from which he had been cast out. As each banner fell, each crown vanished forever into the frozen wastes, he would rend his garments and scream into the demoniac winds, Do you see now? Do you see what I am? Do you see all that I could be?

But those fires have long since gone to coal. He’s no conqueror now, he’s a governor. An administrator. And when he thinks back to the Long Night, the night of broken words and broken wings: he feels only the cold rush of the howling winds, and the hard unyielding ice rising to meet him.

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The Circus Is In Town

Yrax massages his temples, keeping his eyes tightly shut.

“What is he bellowing about now?” he asks quietly.

“I haven’t the faintest, my lord,” his seneschal replies. Ceseer, head bowed, remains silent.

“Let him in,” Yrax finally says, waving one hand toward the door. Wordlessly the seneschal crosses the room and opens it. Iantor bounds in before the door is even fully open, sending the seneschal sprawling. He’s chanting one word over and over; which, after a moment, Yrax identifies as circus.

“Yes, Iantor, yes. Circus. I understand. Now could you please—” His words fall on deaf ears, as his unruly child continues to bound excitedly about the room.

“Iantor, calm yourself!” Yrax shouts. Iantor’s chant is cut off with a gulp, and he falls noisily to his haunches. “Now, please,” Yrax continues, “tell me what this is about.”

Iantor grins. “There’s gunna be a circus tomorrah!”

“A… circus?”

“Uh huh! In the fairgrounds.”

“Where in all the frozen hells…” He looks toward his seneschal again. “Where would a circus have come from?” The seneschal shrugs mutely.

“Perhaps the locals have arranged it?” Ceseer offers up. Yrax grunts in reply.

“Kin I go, dah? Kin I go to the circus tomorrah?”

Yrax sighs. “Yes, fine.” To the seneschal: “Go with him, keep him out of trouble.”

The seneschal frowns. “As you say, my lord.”

Iantor bounds to his feet again and prances around the room, and then out the door, chanting “circus circus circus!” the entire time.

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We've Lost Contact With Charlie Company

“I don’t understand it.”

“They’re dead, captain.”

“Yes, I understand that part, thank you,” His voice goes higher, gets a bit shrill. Yavrok knew his new captain was green, but he didn’t realize he was this green: he’d never seen a corpse before.

“What I would like to know,” the captain continues testily, “is why they are dead.”

“Well…” Yavrok chews thoughtfully on a strip of jerky as he contemplates the scene. He is, he is forced to admit, as shocked as the captain. They were sent through the portal to reinforce the River Kingdoms garrison. By all accounts it was a quiet area, with little resistance. The men, women, and genderless things stationed there had been there awhile, growing restless, and needed to be relieved. But when they emerged from the portal into the command camp, Yavrok had nearly been overcome by the odor of death. It hadn’t taken long to confirm that no one in the camp remained alive.

“The one there appears to have encountered an excess of fire,” Yavrok finally offers up. “This one…” He nudges it with his toe, “probably has to do with the fact that his torso’s here and his legs are over there.”

“I understand that!” the captain hisses. “The entire command camp is dead, Yavrok. Say something useful or shut up.” He looks pale. His eyes are wide and his brow wrinkled, but he looks like he’s having trouble focusing. He won’t last a month in the field.

There’s a sound like the cracking of ice floes, and then silence: the omnipresent wind howling from the portal has ceased suddenly. Yavrok, the captain, and the other men turn to face it. They have barely a moment to register the shock before it collapses inward, crackling and crunching.

And then there is nothing. Just air, and a bemused cadre of soldiers. And the unseasonal snow steaming on the warming ground.

“Shit,” Yavrok says.

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Warm Hearth, Cold Guest: Part Two

The withered crone grips the mug in both hands, raises it to her thin and bark-like lips, and takes a sip. A sound that might be a pleased sigh follows. Yrax furrows his considerable brow; she didn’t check to see if it was poisoned, didn’t even ask. He notes then her ice chip eyes on him again, and he realizes: she doesn’t need to, she would know. The thought chills him.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, grandmother?” Yrax asks lightly.

The crone snorts in response. “Cut the skeltershit, Yrax. I was waylaid by your idiot abomination. And there’s only one reason I ever trudge these miserable wastes.”

“The Engine.”

“Mm,” the old woman replies. “Have to make sure my little clockworks is still clockworking.” She titters wheezily at her own joke.

“And I’m to believe Iantor just… what, caught you with your britches down? As you say, venerable lady: cut the skeltershit.”

The crone’s ice chip eyes seem suddenly to shine with cold fire, and her voice snaps like a whip: “You’ll watch your tone with me, boy.” Yrax recoils, fights to keep his gaze on the witch’s eyes. There is, he is surprised to discover, a bit of a lump in his throat. The frigid blue eyes hold him, and its feels like rays of fire sweep across him. He wants to shrink a little.

Just as suddenly, she breaks into a gnarl-toothed grin, and laughs. “Always so serious, you are. As it happens…” She bends over with a tired huff and begins rifling through a bundle of leather of furs that has until this point been indistinguishable from the folds of her tattered and layered dress. “… I do have a gift for you.”

“A gift?”

“Well, sort of. Where is… I know I… aha!” She straightens, pulling free a large roll of snow-white fur. “I need you to hang on to something for me.” She unfurls it and lays it on the ground between them: the hide of some strange beast, bigger than a man and with a great, shaggy head. Its claws, still attached to the hide’s outstretched paws, are obsidian black.

“Am I to—”

“Just hang on to it. It’ll look lovely in front of your hearth there.”

“Just… hang on to it.”

“Yes, boy. Keep it safe. I’ll be back for it.”

“It is… some sort of device? Or charm?”

“It’s a rug.”

Yrax’s brow furrows again. “I don’t understand.”

“Didn’t ask you to.” She settles back in her chair and takes another long sip of tea. She smiles at him again, and again he feels like shrinking. “Just be a good lad and do as you’re told.”

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Warm Hearth, Cold Guest

Yrax, Lord of the Howling Storm, is in a foul mood. As he hastens toward the courtyard, he shoots a withering glance at his seneschal. “I blame you for teaching him to speak.” The seneschal keeps his head lowered, hurrying to match Yrax’s long strides. The howling from the courtyard continues unabated.

When Yrax finally steps out into the near-blinding sun, he immediately spots the large and ungainly silhouette of Iantor clutching one of the old ice pillars and bellowing into the sky.

“I’m here, Iantor!” he shouts, hoping his own formidable voice can be heard over that of his mutant child. “What’s all this racket?” Iantor, hearing Yrax, ceases his noise and breaks into a toothy, idiot grin.

“I cappered summat!” Iantor declares.

“You… what?” Yrax asks.

“I cappered it. Like yuh said. I didden kill it, I cappered it. Wif chains.” The seneschal gives Yrax a lost look. Yrax sighs.

“Good, Iantor. Good. We can use captives sometimes. Show me.”

Iantor reaches one thick, tree-like leg down from the column and nudges the cluster of guards below him. The guards in front part, revealing amidst them a figure draped in heavy furs, bound with thick resin chains. Yrax starts forward to address the captive. As he does so it raises its cloaked head, and two eyes like chips of ice peer out from under the hood.

Yrax stops in his tracks. “Oh you stupid boy,” he breathes.

“I cappered it!” Iantor proclaims again. “Wif chains!”

“Yes, Iantor, you did. Next we must teach you that sometimes even chains won’t help you.” He motions toward the guards. “Unbind our guest.” Confused, they look up to Iantor.

“But… but dah… I cappered it!” Iantor stammers. “You said to capper things instead uh kill ’em, and I cappered it.”

“Unbind our guest now.” He speaks quietly, but there is something in his voice—could it be just the faintest tinge of fear?—that compels the guards to comply, and Iantor to keep his silence. As the guards struggle with their keys, however, the chains fall suddenly and noisily to the ground. A broad, snaggle-toothed grin emerges from the depths of the hood.

“Little Yrax,” a voice croaks, “been awhile.”

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Seems Like It Ought To Talk

“Will you stop that ridiculous cooing, Pharamol?”

The commander observes, without turning from the cage, “Seems like it ought to talk, doesn’t it?”

Amerenth shrugs. “Not every weird bird—birds?—talks. Sometimes they’re just birds.”

“Still…” Pharamol twists his head this way and that, as if he can somehow catch the bird in a different light.

“Just go to bed,” the symbiote grumbles.

“Fine. Stupid thing would probably just ask for a cracker anyway, and all I’ve got is hardtack.” Amerenth can hear him setting aside weapons, tugging off his boots, and lowering himself into his cot. There’s a thin woosh as he extinguishes the lantern, and then silence.

For a few moments. “You okay, Amerenth?” She grunts. “You seem testy tonight is all.”

“Haven’t slept well,” Amerenth mutters.

“Right. Well, I won’t keep you up then.” She can hear Pharamol settle onto his side. Moments later, there’s a thin, wheezy snore.

Amerenth curls her legs up to her chest and waits. It doesn’t take long.

A harsh voice pierces the night, barely audible above Pharamol’s breathing: “Light and dark are just two faces on the same bogeyman, you know.”

Another voice, lower and raspier: “Doesn’t matter who you pray to, all you serve is death.”

“No one wins this war. No one wants to.”

“We live in a land where everything we want or need falls from the sky. What else is there to do but fight?”

“Endlessly and endlessly, as the peasants are driven into dust and the temples grow fat with gold…”

“We have always been at war with Eastasia.” The two voices cackle, low and menacing.

“A boot stamping, brother Udoga.”

“On a human face, brother Chubak.”

“Forever,” they intone as one.

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The End Of a Long Road

Morgan has made a point to study Shegug’s face every day for at least a week now, but the uneasiness never leaves her. She and the mop-haired priest have been through hell together: over a dozen campaigns, including the evacuation of Worldgate; not to mention their childhood years in the slums. She has seen every facet of her old friend’s personality, every expression of his face. The creature that sits before her in its resinous throne, pale blue light seeping between its fingers from the polished and glassy orbs on which its arms rest, slack-jawed and with just the faintest and simplest of grins as its unseeing eyes gaze ever at the plate of frosted glass with its endlessly rolling landscape… She does not recognize this creature.

“You seem uneasy, Templar.”

Morgan shifts her gaze to the left without turning her head: Blind Thomas, the wormspeaker.

“Merely eager to have this over with, Thomas,” Morgan replies.

Thomas makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Soon. Tomorrow morning, if the winds are fair.” Morgan lapses back into silence; after a time, Thomas continues, “You worry for your friend.”

“Just tired,” Morgan grunts.

“No shame in it, child.”

Morgan fixes Thomas with a cold gaze. “It is a great honor to be chosen as an orb pilot.”

Thomas laughs, a short and bitter bark. “Yes, indeed. Glory be to the light and all who serve it. But it is a terrible burden too. Few pilots complete the ordeal unscathed. Many retire from service after. They become recluses, or drunks, or worse. Some…” Thomas glances sidelong at Morgan, “… some simply fall lifeless from the throne.”

“Your words smack of heresy, wormspeaker. See to your writhing tongue.”

Thomas holds up his hands, as if in defense. “Fear not, Templar, there’s no sliver of darkness in my heart.”

“Then speak plainly as to your purpose.” Morgan’s hand hovers near the hilt of her sword.

Thomas frowns. “There are dark days before us, Morgan Moonchild. We shall soon be, as the garrison men like to say, ‘in the shit.’ I need your head firmly planted on your shoulders when we crest the mountains tomorrow.”

Morgan turns away, looking again at Shegug.

“Whatever fate befalls your friend,” Thomas continues, “it is one he chose, willingly and ecstatically. Tomorrow is not the day for tears. Tomorrow is for blood. Tears may come another day.”

Morgan remains silent, though the muscles of her jaw twitch. Thomas observes her for a time, then slowly turns and shuffles away.

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Johnny's Gone For a Soldier

Brecken pokes halfheartedly at the scrub. It’s hard to focus his eyes on penetrating the inky, moonless dark. Torchlights bob like fairy lights out over the fields, and muted shouts pervade the village behind him. His mind turns over many questions.

“Psst!” A sharp hiss. Brecken’s eyes snap up, toward the left. Two tiny points of light peer out through the brown fronds. “Hey, Breck!”

“Lords-a-light, Jozie!” Brecken snarls. “What did you do?”

“Reckon you know,” Jozen whispers. His face begins to resolve in the darkness, mouth set in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Brecken says quietly. “Yeah, I know.” He looks around, makes sure no one else is near; then he kneels to bring his face closer to his friend’s. “Why, Jozie? What was you thinking?”

“I couldn’t take it, Breck. Knowin’ he’d be laughing at me ’till we all dead. And she—” his voice cracks, just a little. “It’s the pity, Breck. I can’t stand the way she looks at me now. Like I’m some dumb kid who should’ve known better.”

“She weren’t worth this, Jozie. You can’t hide long, and they’re gonna hang you for what you done.”

Jozen shakes his head. “Naw, got it figured. I can be in Juniper by sun-up. From there take one of the merchant vans up through the Star.”

Brecken’s eyes narrow. “The Star? Why you wanna go there?”

“I’m enlisting, Breck. I’m going up north to fight.”

“Pentecost’s shriveled old balls, why would you do that? The war will be at our doorstep soon enough, no need to go runnin’ for it.”

“Or stay here and what? Swing from the courthouse? Make reparation?”

“Higgen’s a vile toad of a man, but he’s reasonable. Maybe you could—”

“Even if he were amenable, I’d be a greybeard afore I paid him back for those horses.” For the briefest of moments, a wicked grin flits across Jozen’s features. “They ain’t even good for meat now, after what I done to ’em.”

“Jozen… the war…” Brecken flounders for words. “Think this through!”

“I done thinkin’, Breck. Just paused to say good-bye. You always been good to me. Since we was whelps, you been good to me.”

“Jozie… I…”

“You take care, Brecken. I don’t think I’ll see you again.” Jozen rises, turns toward the north.

“What do I tell your ma?”

“Tell her…” He ponders a moment. “Tell her I’m lost. Lost in the wild. Another lonely ghost wailin’ in the wastes.”

“Jozen…”

And Brecken realizes he’s talking to empty air.

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