Odds Without Ends — Bester & Company

Hello!

As promised, I’m premiering a new feature today called Odds Without Ends. What is it? Well, during the course of my time as an amateur writer (read: my entire life), I’ve started many, many projects, the vast majority of which petered out and were eventually left to rot. Rather than allowing these poor unfinished works to sit around unseen, I thought I could post them here at the Oktopod blog for your amusement and edification. These are stories I invested a lot of time, effort, and planning in which I’d still love to finish, and if any of them happen to capture your attention, I may just be convinced to move them up my production slate.

Note: Unlike the other content here at the Oktopod blog, the works displayed in Odds Without Ends all have their copyrights thoroughly reserved. These are not Creative Commons pieces (yet), so they are currently for looking and not touching.

First up is an unfinished short called Bester & Company, which I’d started work on as a lead in to a full-length novel set in the same universe. The setting is a Jim Henson inspired world called the Land of 7 Songs, a fantastic realm where music is literally magic. I had dreams of it someday turning into an animated musical where the characters actually break into song and dance numbers as a matter of day-to-day life.

The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who I envisioned as old, incredibly knowledgeable, and more than a little senile. This results in a sort of rambling story-telling style that sometimes has difficulty getting to the point, or even remember there was a point to get to. I was aiming for something half-way between Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but the result turned out very narratively dense, making it a bit of a pain to write (and possibly just as much of a pain to read).

Click through to judge for yourself…

Bester & Company

It was sometime after midnight in Bartlecrest, during those dismal hours of morning when only ravenous beasts, criminals and jazz musicians stirred. Not that ravenous beasts were much of a problem on Bartlecrest’s cobbled streets anymore, nor had they been in more than eight whole months. The criminals and jazz musicians were, however, another story.

Folks used to make quite a racket about the crime problem once upon a time. They whined and moaned and gnashed their teeth, and when no one paid them any mind, they wrote petitions that were similarly ignored. When the pen failed, they turned to the picket, and when the picket failed, they began to throw fruit.

Thrown fruit, I believe you’ll find, can be very persuasive.

This caught the attention of the Professional Soldiers Guild, who had an iron-clad monopoly on law and order in Bartlecrest. Their general, Julius Jumbleright III, soon announced his daring plan to clean up the streets and it went a little something like this: armored troops would stomp about with menacing looks on their faces, grab anyone remotely suspicious looking by the ear and then toss them into the River Smelt.

The General’s plan was put it into action, and despite its total lack of cunning or cleverness, it actually met with a fair amount of success. A fortnight of peace and quiet followed, after which the criminals, musicians and quite a few shifty looking but otherwise decent folk returned to the city, soggier but no worse for wear.

The soldiers redoubled their efforts, and when that failed, they redoubled them again, but each time, they found the streets refilled with riff-raff a few days later. The city appeared to be some sort bottomless crime-ucopia.

The Guild lost count of how many times they’d swept the streets, which was hardly surprising as they weren’t widely known for their academic acumen. They were just simple mercenaries afterall, and even their accountants were more skilled in drawing and quartering than they were in addition and subtraction.

After countless redoublings and even a few re-quadruplings, change was due, and it came in the form of Julius Jumbleright III’s son and replacement, General Julius Jumbleright IV. Elected by the Guild on a platform of revolutionary thinking, his first move was to utterly denounce his father’s crusades. He called them misguided, poorly planned and just plain dunderheaded, then asked the populace of Bartlecrest to think of the children and hug their neighbor.

With that, the war against crime and popular music was abandoned and it faded into history, becoming yet another footnote in Bartlecrest’s storied past.

So storied was this past that, besides pick-pockets, troubadours, bankers and chimney sweeps, the most common (and despised) profession in the city was historian, and the single greatest passion of Bartlecrest’s historians was the study of the elder Jumbleright’s War on Crime. The exact number of campaigns became a matter of endless debate among them, and they calculated and argued and made foul comments about one another’s mothers, until only two theories remained: one school counted thirty-two campaigns, and their more militant opposition recognized only thirty-one.

The less learned folk of Bartlecrest, by then jaded and cynical in the extreme, couldn’t be bothered to care in the slightest, nor could they understand why the historians did. That did little to deter the historians, however, and their debate raged on until it escalated into a regular, bi-weekly bout of spindly-armed fisticuffs conducted outside of whichever pub served the least expensive and most potent brew.

This brought about a steady stream of bloodied noses and broken spectacles, and that in a round-about fashion led to the creation of Bartlecrest’s first and only academic journal—The New Bartlian: A Journal of History Modern et Antique—produced twice a month by a makeshift union of the city’s lens grinders.

The lens grinders, as you might expect, were more interested in mending spectacles than they were in history, and as such, their publication enjoyed wide circulation and very little editorial oversight; it was famously easy for anyone to get an article published within, no matter how poor their reasoning, grammar or penmanship. This lack of quality control was even more pronounced in the double-sized holiday issue, which, although nearly incomprehensible even to academics, managed once a year to pay for countless handsome gifts for the lens grinders’ friends and families.

Drat and bother. I seem to have gotten just utterly off track. Where was I?

One second. Let me see here… the war was abandoned. Got that. It faded into history. Have that too. Storied past, footnotes, blah blah blah… Ah-ha! Here we are.

When he abandoned his fathers war on crime, Julius Jumbleright IV decided that the daytime was all that really mattered. After all, any honorable and self-respecting citizen would no doubt want to conduct his business in the warm light of the sun.

As for the night… At a late hour such as this, anyone with even a hint of sense in his head was bundled up and sleeping with a knife beneath his pillow, behind several sturdy locked doors, on the other side of the most frightening gate he could afford. This was the case even for the mountainously muscled mercenaries of the Soldier’s Guild, who owned some of the thickest doors and spikiest gates in all the land.

And what of the city’s less savory element? What of the thieves, vagabonds and buskers who owned that abandoned night? Well, they were finally free to live in a world all their own, without pesky inconveniences like law or order to distract them, and as such, they festered everywhere — especially in the bulgy, poverty-stricken sprawl known as Bartlebottom.

The largest portion of these criminals could be found loitering on the crooked streets and alleys along the wide River Smelt or else hidden in the shadow of the Twenty-One Toe Bridge, where they greedily mugged and re-mugged one another for lack of more profitable victims. Others, mostly belonging to the Acrobatic League of Burglars, Cutthroats and Sneaks, plied their wicked trades atop the jagged skyline, where they spent the night climbing, jumping and tumbling from one rooftop to the next, in search of homes with fine riches and not-so-fine locks. The most unsavory lot dwelled in the ancient and nearly forgotten tunnels beneath the streets, but of those folk and their malodorous lives, I’d prefer not to speak in polite company.

It’s because of this wide-spread criminal infestation that Bartlecrest came to be known as the city that slept with one eye open, for fear obviously of being burgled in the night. I’ll not bother you with the city’s other nicknames, but you may rest assured that most involved words of which your mother would bitterly disapprove.

By now, you might be thinking that Bartlecrest was a perfectly dreadful place to live, populated as it was with the third worst sort of rogues in all the Land of 7 Songs, but it wasn’t all bad. Not 100%, at any rate. Surely, a tourist outdoors after sundown would soon find himself naked and pennyless, and few children of the inner-city had any clue what either moon looked like, but the city made up for these deficiencies with boundless charm. Bartlecrest had the sort of personality that seemed to say, “Hey! You, over there. How’s it shakin’? I don’t mean to seem forward, but you’re very good looking. Fetching, really. Has anyone ever told you that? Of course I mean it. And you’re so clever, too. Why don’t you come on in, put your feet up, and leave your coin-purse in an easily plucked location? No, I insist.”

It’s because of this bubbly, nigh-effervescent charm that Bartlecrest became the single greatest melting pot in all the world, where a leaky roof and paltry wage awaited every creature with a pulse and a strong back. Those with bigger dreams had plenty of opportunities to grab hold of them, from home-study programs to apprenticeships, or even enrollment at the prestigious Gobbledygook Acadamy, so called because its tongue-twisting name was remembered by only the greyest and most wizened of scholars.

Nor was it opportunity alone that attracted immigrants; the city was just fabulously beautiful, with more tourist attractions per square mile than any other city in all the world. There were marbled arcades and bustling bazaars, inspirational statues and graceful fountains. There were twisting rivers adorned with fanciful bridges, and dozens upon dozens of antique temples, all long abandoned and finally renovated into museums, theaters and high-class eateries. All, that is, except for the Forbidden Temple, but we’ll come to that in due time.

At the center of it all was City Hall, where the People’s Elected Potentate and Assemblage of Honorable Guilds (phew) met to sling insults at one another over this, that and whatever else. Although the business that went on inside was despicable, the building itself was a towering masterpiece replete with arabesqued columns, high arches that very nearly touched the clouds, and a shimmering, opalescent dome that was perhaps a smidgen too extravagant even for that ostentatious building.

From City Hall’s massive doors, one could just barely see the Municipal Prison off to the north, a stern fortress that squatted heavily upon the ground, guarding a vast network of dank tunnels beneath. It was every bit as austere as City Hall was elegant, and although a great many folk were treated to closer looks, very few had any choice in the matter.

Last on most tours but certainly not least was Crest Top Park, known for having one of the five greatest vistas in all the world. From there, one could see out over the entire sprawling city and clear across the southern Bartlewood to the distant Sea of Stars. The view was highly sought after, and in true Bartlian tradition, was completely enclosed by gated toll-booths and dotted with unscrupulous vendors.

Yet none of this beauty could hold a flickering candle to the jazz music.

You look a tad confused. Am I gibbering again? Sometimes, my tongue gets all dried out, and even I can’t tell exactly what I’m going on about. What’s that? What could be so great about jazz, you ask? Oh my… I’ve clearly skipped over something important here. Let’s scoot back to the beginning, shall we?

The Land of 7 Songs, called Synchordia by those of a snootier persuasion, was made of music. Its history is long, intricate and dizzying, and I’ll not bore you with the details except to say that music was the world’s essence; not simply its fabric, but its flesh, blood and bones. The land itself was born from the power of one song, then destroyed by another, and finally stitched haphazardly back together by yet seven more.

Millenia had passed since those ancient days, and during that time, countless fantastic composers and virtuosos struggled to keep the art alive, but their efforts were all in vain; music’s true power sapped away despite them. It eroded, leaving the shape but not the detail, until even faint memories of its ancient glory were faded, dim and weak.

By the modern age, the power was all but gone, yet the music soldiered on. It remained the beat of civilization, as important as food, wind or water. You can probably imagine then how weird and wonderful it was when a wholly new form of music emerged from the dingy streets of the most vibrant and corrupt city in all existence.

Did I say weird and wonderful? Actually, jazz’s introduction was met with equal measures slack-jawed awe, suspicion and outright scorn, but isn’t that always the case with great things?

The heart of this musical revolution was a club in old Bartlebottom called The Wailing Crow, known throughout the city (and most of the rest of the world) as a seriously happenin’ joint. It’s there within the busy nightclub that our story finally begins, in the bronze glow of three dozen flickering oil-lamps, beneath ribbons of smoke drifting like spiderwebs in a spring breeze. Jimi the Phlink was onstage just then, his huge black eyes scrunched closed in concentration while his countless blue fingers danced across the strings of a guitar. Jimi was on fire that night (figuritively speaking), playing like a Phlink possessed (quite literally this time), and so ferocious was his fretwork that his bandmates were tempted to call for an exorcist, despite the fact that exorcists everywhere were known to be drunks and charlatans.

Jimi was, at that precise moment, the sixth greatest musician in all the lands, and this was his finest performance to date. But the ballad of Jimi the Phlink, fascinating as it may be, is a matter for another day. Instead, let’s drift to the booths at the back of the room where the din of the night’s music grew distant, and the patrons spoke in voices not nearly so hushed as they believed.

There, a young Mojin named Eno Kaleo stood hunched over a table. His orange skin was shiny with a warm night’s sweat, and the thick, curling horns atop his head threatened to topple a hanging lantern with his every movement. His eyes were bright and thoughtful, and the face surrounding them soft, with the sort of patchy stubble that men mistakenly think attractive in their early years.

“…what I’m talking about are new modes. Entirely new ways of thinking,” he was saying, with a taste of madness in his mouth. “Scales that don’t exist yet, and won’t unless WE,” he emphasized that word, “discover them.”

The booth was full of his usual audience; young radicals like himself, each desperate for something new and hip to believe in. The crowd had been growing in recent weeks, and faces of every color of the rainbow now bobbed in agreement while Eno preached his gospel of the avant-garde.

“Dig it,” one of the peanut gallery said, while another snapped her fingers in time with the music.

Eno felt really charged up that night, and he suspected it was Jimi’s blistering solo that was driving him. That had to be it. “The first step is to open our minds to possibility… To the possibility of infinity that surrounds us at every moment.” He made a circle with his finger, there. “When we do that, each mistake starts to look more like a baby step out into a new frontier.” At that, his fingers pantomimed those first few precious steps.

By this point, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was talking about anymore. One thought had led to the next that then chained to the third, fourth and fifth, until his sparkling mind was prancing about in territory wholly unknown. No one else in the booth totally understood what he was on about either, but they all seemed quite taken with it, whatever it was.

There was, however, one in the audience who understood all too well. He was standing in the soft shadows just beyond the booth, listening to Eno Kaleo with far keener interest than his half-lidded eyes implied.

Eno didn’t notice this other fellow. Not just yet.

Instead, he went on for another half-hour, speaking of ancient styles of composition that had been lost to history, and the classical forms they spawned that were now stale and predictable from overuse. What he craved, what he urged his audience to seek out, was progress. Musical progress.

None of them asked where this progress would lead, and Eno couldn’t have answered if they did. All he knew was that something wonderful and unexpected lay over the next horizon just waiting to be created, and that the world would never be the same once it arrived.

As the sermon petered out, his audience wandered off one by one. Jimi the Phlink, now exhausted and soaked from head to toe, had long since vacated the stage, only to be replaced by the sultry sound of Seffanie Bright and the Bartlebottom Brass, who filled The Wailing Crow with a more subdued energy.

Eno was packing up his papers and various sundries when the strange fellow lurking in the shadows finally came forward. As he stepped into the light, it became apparent that he was… well, Eno wasn’t quite sure what he was.

The strange fellow was tall and thin. In fact, his every feature managed to be both tall and thin, except for his mouth which was rather more thick lipped and wide, but in that it was the sole exception. His skin was a pale blue bordering on grey that spoke of age immeasurable, even if he was only the least bit wrinkled. That sense of age was further compounded by his half-lidded eyes, as of a very discerning man only half-amused, or else a very dull man only half-awake. To the sides of his head, earlobes hung a vast distance from their respective ears, as if stretched down over time by some great and unknown weight.

As the strange fellow glided forward, his cream colored robes with mustard-yellow trim made no sound, and his tall, cylindrical hat remained unnervingly level. He raised his arms and brought his four hands together, making two tiny chapels of his fingers, then he bowed his head and said, “If you will pardon my most rude interruption, it would honor me greatly to make your acquaintance.” His voice was low, slow and rich as hammered brass. “I have matters to discuss which I believe might… intrigue you.”

In all the time Eno had spent in Bartlecrest, only one creature had ever addressed him quite like that. Now he looked squarely into the strange fellow’s eyes and said, “Move along. I haven’t any coin, and no one would give a toss if I went missing.”

The strange fellow’s lips curled in the most imperceptible way. Eno thought it might have been a smile, or else a figment of his imagination. It was a close call either way. After a long pause, the strange fellow spoke again. “You are clearly a product of your habitat, Mr. Kaleo.”

Eno wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he suspected it wasn’t a compliment.

The fellow went on, “A thousand apologies. I will begin again. My name is Barus Adoleskes, and I am a… student. A Sophisti traveling scholar. I have been listening to your theories with much interest, and I believe there is deep wisdom revealed in your words. I had hoped that you might give me your opinion of this.”

With those words, the strange fellow’s lower hands reached into his robes and returned with an ornate bronze canister, which his upper hands then unsealed with a single smooth motion. He removed an old and weathered scroll from within and gently unrolled it across the table, producing a small cloud of dust that glittered in the lamp-light.

Eno caught sight of what was written on the scroll, and the rest of the world shrank away. It was sheet music. Rather ancient sheet music.

“Hallo,” he said.

With a flick, Eno retrieved his wire-rimmed spectacles and placed them atop his nose, then began poring over the fine details. The cloth was even older than he first thought. He softly dragged a finger over the surface, and felt the grit of the weave. The threads were unravelling as they aged, turning to dust that collected on his finger tip.

It smelled of a freshly opened tomb. He chose not to recall the incident that had acquainted him with such smells.

The format was reasonably modern, with two five-line staves, but the glyphs were alien to him. Their shapes reminded him of different sorts of birds in mid-flight, and he thought he’d puzzled out their meaning after a few moments, but wasn’t sure. “How old is it? Two millenia?”

“One-thousand nine-hundred and sixty-three years,” Barus replied.

Eno produced a pad of paper and a fountain pen. “During the reign of Theoclesius the second. Invert the key signature,” he mumbled as he scribbled notes. “And it’s written in… Kedemoni blood?”

Barus nodded his tall, thin head.

“A royal composition, then. A canon, and so beautiful,” Eno said. His eyes traced the intertwining trails of glyphs as they danced up and down the staves, and each note played out in his head, recreating the music of which the writing was only a shadow. Then his right eyebrow lurched up toward his horns. “It’s incomplete.”

Barus remained silent.

As a rule, every creature in every universe is born with some innate talent, a task which they excel at without any understanding of how or why. This composition was a puzzle, and it was precisely the sort of thing that Eno Kaleo had a knack for.

He melted into the work. The incomplete bars were reproduced on his notepad, and then he went about completing them. He relayered the original melody, shifting key and tempo, so that each note created a harmony with those already placed, and then, before he knew it, he was done.

“Most impressive,” Barus said. The strange fellow produced a sheet of rolled parchment from inside his robes (what else did he have in there?) and unrolled it next to Eno’s notepad. Scrawled on the parchment was the same stretch of the composition, solved exactly as Eno had solved it.

“You already knew the answer? But why would…”

Barus extended a tall, thin finger and silenced Eno mid-sentence. “It is true. I already possess the missing portion of this composition, but such a thing was obtained only through much time and effort. Yannus Archaos, a composer with whose name I suspect you are familiar, required more than six months to accomplish what you have just done in less than a minute.”

Of course he’d heard of Archaos. Everyone had heard of the Grand Master Archaos, whose fugues and sonatas were the most respected in all the civilized world. He was a living legend, and Eno Kaleo had just been compared to him. Favorably at that.

Eno’s eyes went wide. He stood up straight, and his horns collided with the overhead lamp with a clang. In the next breath, he tried to steady the now swinging lamp, but instead stumbled backward and tripped over his own feet. His arms flailed and he swam in mid-air for a moment, before his posterior loudly met the floor.

His face turned from orange to red. “Must’ve tripped on something,” he said as he dusted himself off and clambered back to his feet.

Barus, in his low and droll voice, said, “Clumsy. No matter. With your permission, I will now take you to meet my employer.”

Eno Kaleo couldn’t say no. He didn’t ask where Barus was taking him, nor would Barus have answered if he did.

***

Much has been written about the famed adventurer Septillius Bester, and a surprising amount of it is even true. Quite a lot more is complete fabrication, and the two are so jumbled up that it’s not always possible to tell them apart, not even for one so learned as myself.

While I’ll do my best to stick to the facts, a few half-truths or even outright lies have doubtlessly squirmed their way in. Take whatever you hear with several large grains of salt.

Bester’s story begins in a nameless hamlet north of Bartlecrest along the Tapeino River, one of the Smelt’s many, tiny tributaries. He was born there in a humble hut along the shore, to a fishmonger who was neither honest nor kind, and his wife who was neither beautiful nor sweet. While most boys of this sort could look forward to a career dealing unwholesome fish, and (if they were lucky) a sour-faced hag of their very own, fate had much more in store for this one.

Septillius Bester was destined for a life of astonishing eccentricity because of a single strange and improbable fact: he was the youngest of seven boys, as was his father before him. He was the seventh son of a seventh son.

Now, I’ve never been able to determine what’s so special about such children, since the folklore describing them is unusually vague and often contradictory. To be sure, the number seven has always had a certain mystical significance, and it pops up again and again throughout history. It’s the number of unique notes in a major scale, and the number of Greater Harmonic Gods. In ancient times, there were seven races that stood against Discord, seven seconds before his low and terribly song broke the world, and seven songs that rose up to mend what had been wrent.

But what exactly did it mean to be a seventh son of a seventh son? Would the boy become a philosopher or a virtuoso, or maybe some sort of messianic king? No one was quite sure; they just knew it was something terrific.

In the case of Septillius Bester, the villagers believed him to be a divine gift of the deadbeat gods, who’d been silent so long that their temples were all abandoned and their names forgotten. This child would be an unstoppable force for goodness, bringing joy and prosperity everlasting to all those around him… or some other such nonsense.

Rumours of the fortunate son spread across the land like a plague, and even as an infant, Septillius Bester’s name was a whisper on lips everywhere, from the lowliest dung shoveler to the greatest foreign king. He was a celebrity, having accomplished nothing more impressive than soiling his diapers.

It won’t surprise you to learn that young Septillius formed a—shall we say—high opinion of himself as he grew older. He considered himself both clever and handsome, and in that he was mostly right. He developed a troubling habit of ordering strangers about as if they were servants, and he had such authority in his voice that they often did precisely as he wished. He soon became so totally convinced of his own divine greatness that at the tender age of six (odd that), he declared himself royalty. He was more than just a seventh son of a seventh son… he was a prince in need of a kingdom.

At age twelve, he bundled up all of his belongings, bid his parents a fond farewell, and marched off into the wide world beyond. His sworn goal was to build a fortune beyond belief, and with it purchase a kingdom and throne to call his own. The rest, as they say, is the stuff of legend.

His journeys took him to every corner of the Land of 7 Songs, and he sought council with every sage and wise man he found along the way. He trained himself to be agile and fleet of foot, mastered the arts of fencing and archery, and learned the manners and culture of nobility.

And what of his exploits? It’s true that he recovered the Lost Lyre of Hypsolophodon (phew) from the Cavern of Blubbering Sorrows, but no one ever mentions that the instrument sounded awful and crumbled to pieces soon afterward. Word of his victory over a rampaging legion of Lithigs, armed with naught but a whisper, were somewhat less true; there were only thirteen of the stone brutes, and it was his keen swordplay rather than his grumbled curse words which won that day.

As for his crusade through the kingdoms of Horrid Little Things… that’s all fact. Every last petrifying tidbit of it.

Throughout all of this, his bravado swelled to immense (some would say epic) proportions, while his name and reputation oozed over the land like a thick bujja-berry jam. He was world famous, celebrated by most, loved by many, envied by more than a few, and by the age of twenty-three, in danger of becoming a has-been.

It was at this precarious point in Septillius Bester’s life that he first met Eno Kaleo in a posh uptown suite he’d rented only the night before — Bester rarely stayed in the same room twice, so as to keep his “enemies” from throttling him in his sleep. Not that he slept much, anyway.

Sometime after midnight but well before dawn, Eno Kaleo found himself in that suite’s snug entryway with the tip of Bester’s rapier pointed at his throat. As his heart raced and the passage of time slowed to a crawl, only a single word wriggled out of Eno’s quavering lips. “Wow.”

Bester stood as firm as a stone column before him, with heroic indignation painted all over his face. His race, the Aimar were similar to the orange-skinned Mojin, but were generally taller and more muscular, and had skin a shade between dark red and maroon. Bester in particular was a fine specimen, being even a bit larger and more sinewy-strong than average. This made him nearly a head taller than Eno, but that’s not what elicited Eno’s reaction.

What impressed Eno were Bester’s horns.

Like the rest of the Aimar, Septillius Bester had a small pair of horns atop his head, set along the line where red forehead met ash-white hair. While a Mojin’s horns were large, knobby and curling, an Aimar’s were small and elegant, little larger than fingers, with only the slightest curve. Aimar were quite proud of these head ornaments, and at the same time rather self-conscious about their diminutive size.

Bester wasn’t self-conscious about his horns at all, because he’d had his plated in pure silver, which presently glinted and glimmered in the candlelight. Eno had never heard of such a thing; he’d never even imagined it in his wildest dreams (which, admittedly, weren’t terribly wild to begin with).

“How dare you violate my sanctum, contemptible fiend!” Bester said. He always spoke like this, as Eno would soon learn. “Swear an oath of eternal fealty to my bloodline, and I will make your passing swift.”

Eno thought he should say something, but found his mouth empty. Instead, he continued staring at those fabulous silver horns.

“This young Mojin is an honored guest, my lord,” Barus said beside him, defusing the situation with practiced grace.

Bester was unmoved. “Nay! I know this dastardly villain. Our swords have met before.” The rage in his eyes burned on unabated. “I’m sure of it.”

“I promise you, with the utmost respect, that you have not. His name is Eno Kaleo, and he’s a composer, my lord. One of the most talented in all the lands.”

“What? Composer, you say?” With a hum, Bester craned forward and inspected Eno as one might look upon unfamiliar fruit. He apparently found nothing out of sorts. “How long did it take him, Barus? How long did he require to complete the task?”

“Forty-two seconds, my lord.”

Bester chewed on his lip while doing some heavy mental arithmetic. “Fantastic,” he said finally, then lowered his rapier and returned it to its sheath. “That may just do it.”

In the span of a breath, his demeanor transformed from crazed killer to gracious host. He patted Eno on the shoulder and ushered him inside, saying “Welcome. Welcome! A terrible mix-up, that, but I’m sure you understand. A noble of my stature must take every last precaution, you see.”

“I guess,” Eno said dizzily. His head was spinning from the threat of imminent death and the sea change that had followed. He felt as if he were being swept up in a typhoon. A big, weird, mildly psychotic typhoon.

A glance over his shoulder revealed Barus’s half-lidded expression thoroughly unchanged. Eno had hoped for a little reassurance, but there was none to be had, and at that he was neither comforted nor particularly surprised.

“Would you care for a glass of wine?” Bester asked as he led Eno deeper into his luxurious suite. “I’ve just opened a bottle of the finest Pugsly Blue.”

Eno stared at his toes and watched the sumptuously thick carpets crunch and crinkle between them. “No thanks,” he said. “I try to wait at least a half-hour before drinking with anyone who’s threatened to kill me.”

Bester patted him on the back again and laughed. “Very sensible. You’ve brought me a sensible young fellow, Barus.”

“I endeavour to please,” Barus said, and Eno thought he detected a microscopic hint of sarcasm. If it existed at all, it was as faint as a single grain of salt in a jug of water. Or arsenic in wine.

A dozen steps later, Bester and Eno came to a stop in the center of the expansive hotel suite, and Eno finally looked up from his feet. It was only then that he realized the three of them were not alone. There were four more creatures arrayed around the room that he’d failed to notice from the doorway.

“I’m sure you already know much about me, Septillius Bester, the prince without a kingdom,” Bester said with a flourish of hands and a bow. “Now, you must allow me to introduce my company.”

The company continued doing whatever strange things they were doing.

Bester motioned toward the near corner, where a tiny Skitter sat perched atop a hulking Groont’s shoulders. “These are Twik & Toro, both excellent companions to have around when diplomacy fails. Twik is a witch-doctor and tribal chieftain whose spear never misses its mark, and his servant Toro is said to be the strongest Groont to ever live.”

Twik’s race, the Skitters were a common enough sight in Bartlecrest, although roundly despised by every creature that was not itself a Skitter, and even some that were. The little beasties stood only a few feet tall on six lanky legs that worked equally well as arms, allowing them to climb everywhere they didn’t belong. And climb they did.

Eno had never seen a Skitter witch-doctor before, and the sight was both comical and frightening at once. Twik was mostly naked, and every visible inch of his tiny body was covered in strange, swirling tattoos that looked like a thousand hurricanes. He wore a loin-cloth made of spotted hide, a neckless with arcane charms dangling from it, and a helmet that was the upper half of some slightly larger creature’s skull. The skull-helmet was adorned with a fan of bright red feathers that made him seem unusually large and menacing for such a small thing.

In every way that Twik was small and flamboyant, Toro was his exact opposite, being both physically tremendous and totally undecorated. Groonts were large, craggy skinned monstrosities, with rows of bony hoops growing out of their backs like stone ladders. Eno had seen hundreds of Groonts working around town as doormen and bodyguards, but Toro was easily the largest and muscliest one yet.

“Hallo,” Eno said meekly.

Twik looked at him and gibbered something unintelligible. To Eno’s ear, it sounded like a dozen curses strung together. Toro remained silent, but twisted his fat lips into a sneer.

“Friendly,” Eno said, and the thick sarcasm dripped from his word and splattered on the floor.

“Quite,” Barus agreed, and left it at that.

Bester went on. “Next, we have Grizomald the Great, whose name simply does him no justice. No justice at all. He is my personal songmaster and thaumusician, skilled in the occult powers of old.”

The old songmaster was one of the Palai, a long-lived species whose countless vestigial wings hung about them like so many rags and tattered robes. This one was all white and grey, all wrinkles and whiskers; where Barus’s countenance hinted at great age, Grizomald’s stated it outright in a geriatric grumble before shouting at kids to get off its lawn.

“A thaumusician,” Eno said with wonder.

Grizomald was sitting in front of an ancient and threadbare book, where he tinkered with an instrument that wasn’t at all familiar. At Eno’s words, he looked up with a grandfatherly smile and said, “You know of the thaumusic, eh?” His voice quaked with either senility or drunkeness. Perhaps a touch of both.

“A little,” Eno said, and said no more. His sister had a talent for the old powers, but he wasn’t ready to share anything so personal with these folk. Not yet.

In an exceptionally imperious tone, Bester said, “Songmaster, show our young guest something fantastic.”

“As you wish, lord. Umm. Something simple, I should think.” With a quake and a jitter, Grizomald flipped the pages of his decaying tome, then found what he was looking for and began to play his strange, boxy instrument. He slowly pulled its two halves apart and squeezed them back together while fingering keys on one side, then repeated the process. The whine that came out managed to be at once grating and sort of charming.

The melody was new to Eno’s ears. It was jaunty and playful, rather like the folk music of his homeland far to the west, but as it progressed, he started to notice the small lilts and improvisations that made a simple song into thaumusic. He had no talent for such things himself, but he recognized them when he heard them, and Grizomald was obviously very skilled, despite any appearances to the contrary.

Then something fantastic happened.

The room began to resonate with the music. The melody echoed again and again, and each echo became a new melody that twirled around the original. The air in the room swirled, and the fire crackling in the nearby hearth flared up then danced out onto the floor.

Eno was entranced and right on the edge of terror. His sister’s thaumusic was never quite like this.

The dancing flame took a Mojin-like form with two arms, two legs and a pair of curling horns. On tip-toes, it gingerly stepped out across the carpet, took a look around and then began to prance about in great arcing leaps, leaving ragged trails of flame behind it like ribbons and streamers.

Then Grizomald’s music died away, and the blazing sprite faded to nothingness.

“Wow,” Eno found himself saying again, wondering where his vocabulary had run off to.

Grizomald offered a small bow, and another warm, grandfatherly smile.

Bester said nothing. He simply shook his head in disappointment, and Grizomald’s smile disappeared as suddenly as his fire-sprite had a moment before.

“Moving right along…” Bester motioned toward the far, dark corner of the room. Eno had vaguely noticed something there earlier, but he couldn’t make out its shape in the shadows; at most, he could tell that it was large and breathing slowly. He felt a tangible menace in the air, though. It was a menace that easily outstripped any tiny witch-doctor or grizzled mountain of muscles. It was a menace that would never ever be impressed by a dancing flame.

“Come out, my pet,” Bester said with a spoonful of honey in his words. “Come meet our guest,” he added, but there was no response. He grew instantly annoyed and growled, “Douleia. Now.”

The creature rose onto all fours, and the floor boards groaned. Eno still couldn’t see it clearly, but he no longer wanted to. He wanted to run and hide. His heart was thumping so hard that he could cover two miles before anyone noticed he was gone. He could dig a hole so deep that no monster would ever find him.

The beast sauntered into the light, revealing great rippling muscles beneath its faintly striped hide. Its bright yellow eyes seemed to glow, and the pair of long, curved teeth protruding from its mouth shone like ivory daggers.

“Y-Y-You keep an Apex as a pet?” Eno asked, filled to the eyeballs with terror and disbelief.

Bester grinned and said, “I do. Isn’t she magnificent?”

And she was. Eno had never seen a more impressive animal in his whole life.

Douleia produced a rumbling growl deep in her throat that shook Eno’s chest, warning him to keep his distance, but he certainly didn’t need any such warning. He’d grown up in the country, and he recognized a wild animal seething against its reins when he saw one.

He didn’t even try to imagine what sort of power could keep a predator like Douleia under control, but whatever it was had to be terrible. Well and truly terrible.

The introduction complete, Douleia wheeled about and returned to skulking in her corner. The shadows were no lighter than before, but Eno could see her bright eyes watching him, and his heart refused to be calmed.

Bester handed him a large, bell-shaped glass full of blue wine, which Eno took without comment and drank.

After that, there was quiet in the suite for some time until Bester finally grew tired of it. He turned to Eno and said, “That is my company. Finest in all the lands. So, what do you say? Interested?”

Eno was confused. The wine was already starting to hit his head. “What do I say to what?”

Bester looked over to Barus Adoleskes. “You didn’t tell him about the job?”

“No, my lord. I wouldn’t discuss such clandestine matters before you’d had a chance to look him over.”

“Of course. Of course.” Bester turned back to Eno, and with the casual tone of a fellow discussing sports or the weather, said “We’re venturing into the Forbidden Temple. Rumour has it there’s a weapon inside so powerful it could slay even the Mighty Therok.”

The wine had calmed Eno’s nerves, but he still nearly jumped out of his skin at that. “The Forbidden Temple? But isn’t that… forbidden?”

“Pish and bother,” Bester said. “Don’t fret your little head. It’s nothing but a name, you see. You mustn’t ever let a silly name stop you from accomplishing great things.”

Eno nodded; that sounded reasonable enough. He marvelled at just how good the wine was.

Bester gave him another pat on the shoulder. “Listen… There are certain obstacles awaiting us, and I could really use a fellow of your obviously immense talent, Eno. Join my company, and I promise the rewards will be beyond your wildest imaginings.”

A single word jumped out of Eno’s mouth before his brain could lurch into motion. He heard himself say it, and by the time he realized what had happened, it was too late to take it back.

“Okay,” his mouth said all by itself, much to his brain’s dismay. With that one word, the big, weird, mildly psychotic typhoon gained strength, and swept him up off his feet, and he had no idea when or where it would set him back down again.

***

Eno Kaleo had of course heard of the Forbidden Temple but had never seen it with his own eyes (or anyone else’s, for that matter), and like virtually every other creature in Bartlecrest, he didn’t know anything about it that couldn’t be guessed from its name. It was a temple and it was forbidden. For Eno, that had always been enough.

He had never been the temple type, and his experience with forbidden places was mostly disastrous.

Not The End

And that’s where our story stops today, trailing off right in the middle of a paragraph. Eno never quite made it to the Forbidden Temple, and the novel about his sister Kara’s adventures never even began. What do you think? Should I go back and finish the tale? Let me know.

I’ll be posting more of these unfinished stories in the coming weeks, so if you like a bit of titillation without a climax, be sure to check back. Among other things, I’ll be posting the first few chapters of a supernatural detective novel called I Vanish, a techno-thriller from last year’s NaNoWriMo called Bronze Archer, and my own great white whale, the spiritual fantasy epic Ebon Tide.

Thanks for reading, and take care,
~Chris

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