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Of Winter Solstice 3
Four nights before Winter Solstice…
Galen Odesseiron was a naturally heavy sleeper. Had the ghost known this it would have come better prepared. As it was, it was at something of a loss as to what to do. The ghost was a short, skinny man who looked every bit like the bookkeeper he had been in life. He stooped. He peered. When alive his nose had had a permanent drip due to him being forced to work in a draughty office, and afterlife sadly hadn't changed this. At least now it was only ectoplasm. The ghost, whose name was Caspar Clem, had always been concerned with doing the Proper Thing, and so he had dressed for the occasion on this his very first haunting. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that heavy chains might look fine, but were terribly uncomfortable, and that even ghosts could get chafed in awkward places. Caspar nervously cleared his throat and tried to pull the bed-curtains aside. When his hand passed right through them he sighed and stuck his head through the heavy red curtains instead.
"Er…hello?" Caspar tried. Galen Odesseiron gave a small snore and turned over in bed, clutching his pillow. "I…I say", Caspar said. "This really is rather important, so would you mind…"
"Oh, my dove", the sleeping wizard cooed. "Never knew you had it in you. Come to daddy…"
The ghost made a disgusted face. "Now really!" he said. "Wake up!"
"Best carrier-pigeon in Thay", Galen muttered. "Have some more bread-crumbs, sweetie…" Then he woke up as Caspar deliberately stuck a transparent hand through his chest.
"Woooo!" Caspar moaned, trying to get into character. He was about as successful as a terrifying spirit from the Great Beyond as a Pit Fiend would be as a fluffy bunny. But Caspar had always believed in Doing Ones Duty No Matter What, and wasn't about to be dissuaded. "Galen Odesseiron", he said, "repent! Repent I say! Else this fate may well befall thee!" He pointed at the chains.
"Developing a fancy for heavy jewelry?" the sleepy wizard asked.
"NO! Getting burdened with the full weight of your sins! Now try to be a little more penitent, my old friend."
Galen rubbed at his eyes. "Terribly sorry, old chap", he said, "but I can't seem to recognize your face. Are you sure we've met before?"
"I don't write the lines", Caspar sulked. "I'm just trying to do my job, that's all. It sounds better that way." He sniffed. "Anyway", he said, "I don't care. I'll just give you the boring prose version, then. See if I care. Ahem. You will be haunted by three spirits, the spirits of Solstice Past, Solstice Present and Solstice Future. You want to listen carefully to whatever they tell you. Questions? No?" He faded out like a mist, leaving a very confused wizard behind.
Galen lay very still for a few minutes, trying to go to sleep again. Just as he was about to succeed there was a bright white light coming from outside the bed curtains. Then a small hand jerked them aside, almost tearing them off their rings.
"You! The big jerk!" said a high-pitched feminine voice from the center of the bright light. "Get a move on, I haven't got all century!" The shape was small and vaguely feminine, and dressed in white, but the fact that it was glowing more brilliantly than a 'Bedazzle' spell made individual features difficult to spot.
"Now, see here!" Galen protested. "I don't recall inviting you in!"
"As if that matters!" the vision sneered. "I'm the Spirit of Solstice Past. I don't exactly need an invitation. Now listen up. I'm supposed to give you a lesson…." As the night turned slowly into gray dawn Galen grew more and more fascinated. Now he knew exactly what he had to do.
On the following morning Edwin was woken up by the sound of singing. At least he assumed it to be singing. There was a melody of a sort, but the words tended towards 'fa-la-la'. Edwin groaned and tried to cover his head with his pillow. It didn't work.
"Oh, no", Edwin muttered to himself as he staggered out of bed. "Now what?" He left Mr Bobo in bed. The big black animal almost seemed to growl with disgust at the hideous screeching noises coming from downstairs. Edwin hurriedly dressed himself and went downstairs, noticing that it was still snowing. The hedge animals in the garden were formless white lumps, only the hint of a dark maw penetrating here and there.
When Edwin came downstairs he froze in surprise, staring wordlessly at the sight before him. There were strange people everywhere, milling about the rooms and hallways of the Mansion. Most seemed to be children, but there were quite a few adults as well. And they were singing, continuously singing in voices that could only be considered disgustingly cheerful at this time of day. Worse, there were at least four or five different songs going on at the same time. Edwin felt a tug at his sleeve and looked down to see a small girl, a year or so younger than himself.
"Hi!" the girl said in a bright voice. "Are you here to sing too?"
"Uh, no?" Edwin said. "I live here. What do you mean, sing?"
"Well, we're Solstice Singers, aren't we? Of course we sing."
"I know what Solstice Singers are", Edwin said. He was getting a little irritated. "But why are you all here?"
"I dunno. You'll have to ask Tiny Timothy. He's the one that brought us here." She turned around and started singing a song about seeing her mother kissing an elf on Solstice Day. The words were very unsuitable for a girl her age.
Edwin slowly made his way through the crowd. There were different kinds of leaves and berries decorating the walls and furniture everywhere. He recognized holly and ivy, but there were several others as well. It was slightly intimidating, like walking through a forest. Eventually he spotted his Father. Galen Odesseiron was standing under the great portal that led into the Ballroom, beaming with pride and joy. "Hello, son!" he said. "Grand sight isn't it?"
"Hello Father", Edwin said cautiously. "What is?"
"Why this, of course! I've had a revelation, my boy! The spirit of Solstice Past came to me last night, reminding me of the dear old days of the past and what Solstice should truly be like. And so I sent for every Solstice Singer in town by carrier pigeon, to have them perform for us daily. Isn't it wonderful? Truly 'tis the season to be jolly!"
"I would rather say it's the season of great folly, Master", Dekaras said from behind the startled wizard's back. "Have you not been notified of the increased security measures?"
"Good grief!" Galen exclaimed. "I wish you wouldn't do that!"
"Do what, Master?"
"You know…that sneaking up behind people thing."
"It is what I am trained to do, Master." The assassin gave the crowd of singers a disgusted look. "Besides", he said, "it hardly takes any skill to sneak up on a person in all this cacophony. Do you really think it wise to invite all these people when we know that Rory Ravonar is on the warpath? Any one of them could be a spy."
"You know", Galen said, "I didn't really think of that."
"But I've already paid them. We'll have to work something out. Oh, good! Here comes their leader now."
Edwin almost squeaked in fear at the sight of the man that approached. He was huge, almost twice as tall as a normal man, and heavily muscled. A great black beard covered most of his face and he walked with a limp.
"Ah, Tiny Tim", Dekaras said, craning his neck upwards to look at the giant. "It certainly has been a while."
"That it has been, old friend", the giant boomed. "That it has."
"And what twist of fate has made you turn to Solstice Singing?" the assassin asked, gingerly shaking the hand of the huge man.
"Bad fall off a roof last year", Tiny Tim rumbled and pointed at his left leg. "Strong-arm work doesn't come as easily to me as it used to. Still, there are all sorts of jobs for a man with a little ogre blood in him aren't there? I cornered the Solstice Singing market easily, and now I get a percent off all the other singers' fees." He laughed and tiny motes of plaster drifted down from the roof. Then he seemed to notice Edwin. "And what have we here?" he asked. "What's your name, then?"
"E-Edwin", Edwin just barely managed. "Edwin Odesseiron. P-pleasure to meet you, sir."
"HA!" Tiny Tim guffawed. "Sir! Polite, aren't you?"
"I've attempted to teach him a thing or two", Dekaras said. "Occasionally I've even succeeded." Then he turned to Edwin. "Tiny Tim is an old friend of mine", he explained. "He has a natural talent for certain kinds of work."
"I'm a quarter Ogre", Tiny Tim said good-naturedly. "I'm very good at beating people up."
"I-I believe you", Edwin said. The quarter Ogre laughed again and ruffled his hair.
"Now, Tim", Dekaras said. "We have a small problem." He went on to briefly explain the situation.
"Well, alright", Tiny Tim said. "Do you want me to send them all home?"
"That would be a bit of a shame", Galen said. "I've already paid you, after all. How about if you keep outside in the garden?"
"I can do that", the quarter Ogre said, nodding. He then proceeded to herd all the singers outside humming a song about a starry night as he did so.
"Well, that worked out just fine", Galen said cheerfully and rubbed his hands.
"For now", Dekaras said. "But please, Master, I urge you to curb your festive spirit a little. There is such a thing as too much. The Mistress asked me to tell you that she almost miscast a very important spell at the first sound of the singing. She is very busy with her Necromancy and we wouldn't want anything to go wrong, would we?"
"No, no, of course not. Still, at least the decorations are nice, aren't they?"
"Yes, Master. Very decorative." The assassin looked around the room. "I see holly, ivy, pine, spruce…" He raised his eyes to the sprig of white berries hanging in the portal above Galen's head. "And mistletoe, as well. You will forgive me if I do not take you up on the opportunity to kiss you, Master. I would not want to get above myself, after all."
After a long day of lessons centered on the various kinds of magic wands Edwin was eventually released from duty. He wandered around the house aimlessly, thinking. He still had no idea what to give his teacher for a Solstice Present. Something he had made himself. But what? A drawing perhaps? But that was a little boring. What else could he make? He was able to cast a simple spell or two by now, but that wasn't exactly something you could keep. Edwin sighed. There had to be something. And then there was. Edwin grinned happily to himself and wandered off to find the items he needed.
Three nights before Winter Solstice…
Galen Odessieron had been half expecting another visit from the small woman in white. So it was with a certain sense of disappointment that he faced the second of his nightly visitors. He had woken up to a flickering red light. When he pulled the bed-curtains aside he saw a large man with a glistening brown beard sitting on the floor. Despite the fact that he was sitting his head almost reached the ceiling. He was dressed in a luxurious green velvet coat with gold trimmings and his cheeks were ruddy with good health and cheer. On the floor around him a great feast was laid out. Roast pig and ox, stuffed birds and dainty potatoes, jelly and sweetmeats, apples and mint chocolate. The intermingled smells were delicious and Galen heard his stomach rumble loudly. The huge man turned his head.
"Oho!" he said. "Awake at last, I see. 'tis about time."
"And you would be…?" the wizard asked.
"Spirit of Solstice Present. Pleased to meet you. Now listen carefully. You want to celebrate Solstice properly, don't you?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, then you need to be aware of all the Solstice customs. And I'm just the right person to help you out with that." The spirit handed Galen a small leather-bound book titled 'Solstice Customs from Around the Worlds'. "There you go", it said. "It's all in there. And now I'm supposed to give you a few pointers…"
Early the following morning Elvira Odesseiron was dreaming, and wearing a very big smile. It was an extremely interesting and pleasurable dream, and one that made it fortunate that her husband slept in a different room and couldn't hear her talking in her sleep.
"Mmmm…", the wizardess murmured. "Yessss…." She could feel hot breath tickling her neck, soft lips grazing the white skin of her throat. Then things progressed to become even more interesting as there was a small nip at her earlobe, followed by a swift wetness at her cheek. "Oh, my", Elvira purred, slowly drifting awake. "You do have a clever tongue, don't you?" She languidly opened her eyes and stared into a pair of moist brown ones. They were situated in a furry brown face with a snuffling red nose. Elvira's eyes traveled upwards and she took in the horns. Then she screamed.
Dekaras, meanwhile, had been having an exceedingly bad morning. Not that he thought there was such a thing as a 'good' morning in the first place, seeing that he was very much an evening person. But being confined to the house was making him irritable and insomniac, and so it was that he was up much earlier than normal. It was perhaps not so strange that his reflexes were just a little slower than usual, enough so that he didn't spot the thing until he had actually come downstairs. When he did, he didn't scream. He didn't disbelieve his eyes either. He simply stood very still for a minute or two. Then he uttered a word that sounded like the wet tearing sound you get when you rip somebody's head off using only your hands. Troll is an excellent language for swearing.
Edwin, too, was up and about earlier than was his custom. He was still working on his tutor's Solstice present and was rapidly getting frustrated. It was a good idea, he was sure of it. And initially it had been coming along quite nicely. But now the ears kept falling off and the bottom seemed much too thick… Edwin sighed and decided to go downstairs in search of breakfast. He gave a huge yawn as he went past the portraits of his ancestors, the china cabinet, the large tree, and the Kara-Turan urn… Tree? Edwin froze in his tracks and turned around. It hadn't been a dream. It was still there. A huge evergreen stood in the middle of the Great Hall, reaching almost all the way to the ceiling. A spruce, Edwin thought. Botany had always bored him, but that much he could remember. His eyes as wide and round as tea plates the boy carefully walked around the tree, as if afraid that it would attack him at any moment. On the other side he was much relieved to come upon his teacher who was watching the tree with extreme dislike.
"What…?" Edwin tried. "Why…?"
"As for 'what'", Dekaras said, "it seems to be a tree. I'm sure I've mentioned them to you once or twice. Usually to be found in forests. Not that Thay has very many of those, but I still wouldn't have imagined anybody would miss them enough to try to bring one indoors. As for the 'why' of it, I have a feeling I shall have to pass that question on to your Father."
"Good morning all!" Galen Odesseiron burst into the room, bubbling with enthusiasm. "Lovely tree, isn't it?"
"It is no doubt a fine example of a spruce, Master", Dekaras said, his voice very carefully neutral. "I am a little surprised at seeing it indoors, however. That is not the most common place to find a spruce."
"Well, you see…" the wizard began. He then immediately interrupted himself at a clomping sound from the Ballroom, like a herd of horses tromping about. "Oh, good!" he exclaimed, his cheeks red with excitement. "I thought I'd misplaced them." He hurried over to pull the door open and the strange creatures came tromping out. They were four-legged, and looked a little bit like deer, but their coats were shaggier, and they were as large as large horses. The confused animals wandered about the room, chewing at random pieces of furniture, snorting and grunting. One of them lifted its tail to create a steaming pile of manure on the floor. Two others made threatening noises at each other and started butting heads. Edwin promptly hid behind his tutor's back, clutching at the hem of the black cloak for comfort.
"Marvelous beasts, aren't they?" Galen asked, his eyes shining. "Bet you can't ever guess what they are!"
"Yes, Master", Dekaras said, in the carefully measured tones of a man addressing a dangerous lunatic. "They are Rashemani reindeer. The giant kind. May I be so bold as to ask why you have them wandering about the house?"
"They aren't part of Rashemani Solstice customs?"
"Yes, Master. The part usually referred to as 'dinner'. "
"Oh. Then I must have been thinking of some other world entirely." The wizard waved a small leather-bound book around. "It's all in here!" he declared. "Solstice Customs from around not just this world, but plenty of others as well. I'm going to make this the best Solstice ever." He then went on to relate an extremely confused story involving reindeer, elves, presents and a fat man in a white beard and red clothes. Edwin got lost halfway through the rant.
"So these reindeer fly, then?" he asked, trying to make sense of things.
"No, not yet", his Father admitted. "Still, I'm confident that I can make it happen. And I've got the sleigh already, I summoned it here along with the reindeer and the tree." His eyes gleamed even more fanatically than ever. "There must be flying reindeer on Solstice Eve!" he said.
"Why?" Edwin asked, stepping aside to keep one of the animals from treading on his foot.
"Well…Er…That's just the way it is. Now let's see if they're all here… There's Fatty and Batty and Grouchy and Evil, Callous and Cruel and Slouchy and Weevil. But where's Rudolph, I wonder?" A scream of extreme surprise and rage penetrated the walls at that moment, coming from the general direction of the bedchambers. "Ah", Galen said, his voice suddenly gloomy. "I think Elvira must have found him."
And indeed she had. The wizardess was extremely displeased at finding a reindeer in her bedchamber, and her displeasure caused several minor explosions, not to mention the summoning of a large, tentacled being that trailed slime all over the carpets as it chased the herd of reindeer into the garden. Fortunately it evaporated before it could turn its attention to the Solstice Singers who were just starting a new song, one about the Joy of Family. Edwin couldn't help but feel that it was a bit misplaced at the moment. He listened to his Father rambling on and on about a fat old toy-maker up North who went about in a sleigh each Solstice Night, delivering gifts to little boys and girls, but he couldn't stir himself enough to care. And he still couldn't figure out what elves had to do with anything. Or how a man supposedly fat could fit into all those chimneys, and never burn himself.
The rest of that day passed in something of a blur. Edwin would have liked to investigate the reindeer a little more closely. The same went for the deep snow and the Solstice Singers. But they were outside, and he was inside, and still not allowed out on pain of rousing his Mother's wrath. Edwin sighed. He was trying to do his homework, a text on the differences between ghosts and spirits, and it was boring him to tears. So far the only information that had managed to stick inside his head was that ghosts were always insubstantial, but that spirits could take on a physical form, also that spirits, unlike ghosts, had never been human to start with. It all seemed extremely dull to Edwin, but apparently his tutor had decided that if he couldn't amuse himself, then neither could anybody else.
Dekaras was pacing back and forth along the wall of the schoolroom, staring out the window. His tense black form reminded Edwin of something he had seen once at the city zoo, about a year ago. There had been a panther inside a cage, pacing in that exact same manner, carefully measuring the extent of its metal prison. Its coat had been a little dusty, its body a little too thin. The yellow eyes had watched the passers-by with a lofty contempt laced with extreme boredom and just a hint of desperation. Confinement had clearly been getting on its nerves.
Edwin sighed again. Well, he wasn't all that happy about being forced to stay indoors either. And his Father's games really didn't help. Why couldn't his Father be…different?
"It isn't fair!" the boy exclaimed, thumping a small fist on the book.
"If you are referring to the extent of your homework…", Dekaras said, his voice dangerous.
Edwin shook his head. "It's…it's nothing", he said, ashamed to admit what he was thinking. Children shouldn't think that sort of thing about their parents, he was sure of it.
The assassin wasn't about to give in that easily however. "Nothing?" he said, pulling out a chair and seating himself on the other side of the table. "Strange. Are you telling me that nothing is fair? That seems a very pessimistic worldview for one so young. Or are you saying that you are now in the habit of ranting and hitting harmless books over 'nothing'? I had hoped I had been able to teach you a little more self-control than that." He leaned forward, his sharp face very serious, as he looked Edwin straight in the eyes. "Now tell me what is the matter."
Edwin looked down on his book. "It's…Father", he said. He sniffed a little. "He's just so…so hopeless. He does all these weird things and…and that makes me feel ashamed of him. I hate that! I shouldn't have to be ashamed of my own Father, should I? It's just not fair. And…and sometimes I wish that he wasn't my Father, but then I feel ashamed of that as well, and…" Edwin heard a the scraping sound of his tutor's chair. Oh, no, he thought, staring more intently than ever on the scratched surface of the table. He'll think I'm bad now. But then he felt himself turned around, a hand on his shoulder and another on his chin so that he couldn't help but face his teacher once again.
"Now listen to me", Dekaras said, his voice uncharacteristically strained. "And this is one of the more important things I am ever going to tell you, so you had better pay attention. Whatever that man does or does not do it is no fault of yours. You have no reason to be ashamed, do you understand me? And neither should you be ashamed of the way he makes you feel. We cannot control the way we feel about people, inconvenient as that can be at times."
"But", Edwin said, his voice trembling a little, "suppose I wind up like him? When I grow up, I mean? Suppose I go all crazy like he is?"
Dekaras shook his head emphatically. "I promise you", he said, "on my word of honor, that you have inherited no trace of mental instability from your Father." He smiled a faint smile, his eyes far away. "A small tendency towards unnecessary brooding perhaps, as well as a certain urge to excel at what you do no matter what it takes. Nothing worse than that, I think. Do you understand?"
"Good", the assassin said. "I am glad to hear it. Now let's call it a day. It is getting late, and you should go to bed."
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going to take a closer look at that book we were shown earlier. Solstice Customs from around the Worlds. I have a feeling it is going to make for some interesting reading."
Two nights before Winter Solstice…
This time Galen had been able to stay awake, eagerly awaiting his next visitor. He thought himself prepared for anything, be it glowing little woman in white or bearded giant. What he wasn't prepared for was an icy wind pulling the bed curtains aside to reveal a tall, gaunt shape dressed all in black. The creature was covered from head to toes in a midnight black robe, its hood pulled up to completely obscure the face. Assuming it has a face, Galen thought with a shudder and pulled his covers up a little. The apparition said nothing, but he could feel it staring at him, scrutinizing him to the very bottom of his soul. It raised its hand to trace a pattern in the air, and as the frightened wizard tried to scramble backwards the vision caught hold of him.
The next morning Edwin awoke to the sounds of running feet and upset voices. He groaned and clutched his bear tighter. Whatever it was he didn't want to know about it. But it was impossible to go back to sleep. Eventually he decided that he might as well go and see what was going on. At least then he would be able to avoid whatever insane object of avid Solstice worship his Father had conjured up this time. The boy carefully made his way through the mansion, trying to stay as silent and unobtrusive as he could. The noises were coming from the direction of his Father's bedchamber and wanted to stay out of sight until he was certain that it was safe to show himself. He was surprised to see a nervous cluster of whispering servants outside his Father's closed door, as well as his Mother and teacher.
Dekaras was kneeling by the door, so focused on what he was doing that he barely seemed to notice Edwin's presence. The assassin was attempting to pick the lock, inserting several slim metal objects into it, one by one, each one failing to achieve the desired result. Eventually he rose and shook his head. "It is no use", he said. "He has enspelled the door, I think. I have unlocked the lock, but the door remains closed."
"To the Nine Hells with him and his stupid stunts!" Elvira swore, obviously unaware of the fact that her son was standing close behind her. "Let me try." Her hands moved in an intricate dance as she wove her spell, her voice rising and falling in time with them. A huge fist materialized out of nowhere, slammed into the door with a sound like a giant putting his foot down, and then disappeared in a shower of golden sparks. The servants scattered in panic. "Oh, blast it!" the wizardess exclaimed, her dark eyes flashing. Her hair had come undone and her face was white with anger. "I was so sure that would work. Looks like he put up some wards against spells as well."
"Mother?" Edwin asked. "What's going on?"
"Edwin!" Elvira said, rapidly turning around at the sound of her son's voice. "I didn't see you there, darling. Your Father is being difficult again, I'm afraid."
"He has locked himself in his room and refuses to come out, even to eat", Elvira said. "Something has unsettled his nerves badly."
"From what we have been able to gather", Dekaras said, still thoughtfully watching the door, "he had some sort of dream or vision last night as well as the ones before. He keeps talking about spirits showing him how to truly celebrate Winter Solstice. At first these visitations were seemingly benign, but then last night it turned nasty."
"What happened?" Edwin asked, worriedly. While he might not be as proud of his Father as he would have liked to be he didn't want anything bad to happen to him.
"We are uncertain", Dekaras said, stroking his chin. "He seems to have had a vision of himself in the near future. He thinks he is about to die, and that nobody will mourn his passing. Then he kept accusing me of trying to steal his bed-curtains to pawn them off and told your Mother that he had seen her dancing at his graveside. Very unpleasant, all of it."
Elvira sighed, her shoulders sagging in defeat. "This really couldn't have happened at a worse time", she said. "How am I ever supposed to achieve the Necromancy position when all these disasters keep distracting me?"
Dekaras turned around to give her an intent look. "How indeed", he murmured, suddenly sounding immensely pleased with himself. "I can't believe I didn't see it before." He pulled out the small book on Solstice customs from one of the many pockets lining his black cloak. "It was all in here", he said to himself more than to anybody else. "I saw it, but I didn't have all the facts." He held the book up. "The flying reindeer are mentioned in this book", he said. "Mentioned by name. So is the fat toy-maker who climbs down chimneys. The same goes for the indoor tree, and there is a long chapter on Solstice singers."
"So Galen got his inspiration from that book", Elvira said, sounding unimpressed. "Why does it matter?"
"It matters because of where he got that book in the first place. It was given to him by one of those spirits he mentioned, and he has told us of how they have been coaching him. There can be no doubt that Master Galen's actions during the past few days have had a highly disruptive effect on this household. And there is one person that we know of who is eager to cause trouble and pull you away from your preparations for the Necromantic Challenge. One person who is also a Necromancer, more than capable of summoning spirits and ghosts to speak the lines written by him."
"Rory Ravonar", Elvira uttered from between clenched teeth. "He will be a toothless lion by the time I'm done with him."
"A moment, Mistress. Attacking him outright would break the Tharchion's rules. No bloodletting, remember? But there are other ways. I have a plan."
Elvira's face was radiant. "Excellent!" she said.
"Of course I cannot act upon it."
"Excuse me?" Elvira said, her voice now even more dangerous than when she had been mentioning Ravonar. The assassin seemed unperturbed by the presence of the smoldering female volcano however.
"Because, Mistress, you have ordered me confined to the house along with everybody else." Dekaras made a show of carefully studying the angle where the wall met the ceiling. "However", he said, his voice considering, "were that restraint to be lifted I would naturally do everything within my power to assist you as always."
"Yes, yes!" the wizardess agreed. "Have it your own way! Do what you please, as long as you humble the Roarer beyond belief." Her fists kept clenching and unclenching. "I want him humiliated", she said. "You can have whatever you want as long as it is within my power to give it. Just make that fat old villain suffer as much as I have these past few days."
"Whatever I want, Mistress? A grand promise too easily abused. I will settle for my freedom of movement. That at least is a gift easily granted, and I will make no demands for anything else. It is almost Winter Solstice after all." The assassin smiled briefly, like sunlight glinting off the sharpened edge of a blade. "And speaking of which", he said, "tonight I will pay Master Rory Ravonar a visit and discuss with him some of the more exotic ways of celebrating the holiday. Another thing. Do you by any chance have access to a levitation spell of higher magnitude?"
"Excellent. Then I will discuss the details with you later, Mistress. First I believe we need to sort Master Galen out."
Elvira bristled. "And just how do you propose to do that? He won't listen to anybody except those stupid spirits!"
"Then, Mistress, my proposal is that we let the three spirits address him once more. Except this time they will speak the words we want them to. Allow me a few hours to arrange matters to my satisfaction and all will be well."
It was the night before Solstice. All through the house everything was silent, except for the sound of chattering teeth coming from the Master bedroom…
Galen Odesseiron was being very careful. As long as he kept in bed, his fingers, toes and head tucked beneath the covers he should be perfectly safe. Last night's vision had been enough to drive him into near catatonia. The silent black wraith had shown him his own gravestone, his own cold and rotting body. And everybody had been pleased with his death, happy even. Elvira in particular, who had been making jests about reanimating him being an easy feat due to him being an empty vessel to begin with. It had something to do with Necromancy. The spirit had shown him that much and it had shown him what was wrong even if he hadn't understood it at first. He had to stop his wife from gaining that Necromancy position or they would grow even more estranged than before, he knew that now. He could cast some enchantment spell or something, perhaps… Almost as if in a trance the wizard got out of bed and pulled on his robe. Then he froze, as there was a gentle tapping at his bedchamber door.
"Who…who is it?" Galen asked. The room was pitch black since the fire had burnt out and he hadn't allowed the servants inside to bring him some fresh firewood. But he wasn't shivering from the cold alone.
"Hey dummy!" a high-pitched feminine voice said. "Let us in!"
"Or do you want us to come through the door?" asked a second voice, this one deep and rumbling. "The Spirits of Solstice go where they please."
"Perhaps through the keyhole, to feast on your tiny soul", hissed a third voice, soft but penetrating. "Open the door and your life will be spared."
Galen hesitated. If he obeyed they might kill him. But they might do that if he disobeyed as well. In the end his reflexes took over and he obeyed the voice of authority. As soon as he had undone the warding spells placed on the door three shapes came inside and the wizard pulled back against the wall. Despite the darkness he could recognize them clearly. There was the tiny figure of Solstice Past, her white dress shining like a lonely star, even if her own glow had been muted. Perhaps she was conserving energy. There was Solstice Present, a hulking great figure of a man. White teeth gleamed against the darkness of his beard as he turned his head toward Galen like a giant bear sniffing for prey. He had discarded his fancy clothes for darker garments, including a cloak that covered most of his face. Finally there was Solstice Future, the most terrifying of them all. The tall black figure had its hood pulled up even further than before, but Galen could feel the smirk on its face as it watched him.
"What…what do you want?" he asked. "I've done everything you've told me."
"And you will do so again, like a good boy", said Solstice Past.
"Go to bed", said Solstice Present. "And then stay there until tomorrow. Then celebrate Solstice, as it ought to be done, the Thayvian way. And don't forget to tip the Solstice Singers, or we'll be back."
"But I can't!" Galen wailed. "You don't understand! What about my great vision?" Then he fell silent as the icy fingers of Solstice Future gripped the collar of his robe.
"I will explain this to you", it whispered in an almost inaudible and icy cold voice, "and I will try to use words simple enough to penetrate the disorganized heap of pink wool that you are pleased to call your mind. Your family expects some peace and quiet on Solstice Day, and you will not disappoint them. They deserve better than that. I would say that they deserve better than you, but that would be stating the obvious. Now stop gaping and go to bed." Galen shut his mouth with a snap and climbed back into bed. There hadn't been an 'or else' in the spirit's little speech, but it had been heavily implied. Just before he closed his eyes he saw the three spirits slip quietly out the door and shut it behind them.
"Well, that seemed to work", Dekaras said a little while later.
"I should think so", Poppy said. The halfling was just coming out of Elvira's bedroom where she had changed from her pretty white dress into her more normal attire. "You scared him half out of his mind."
"It was for his own good", Dekaras said, shrugging. "Putting forth complex lines of reasoning and persuasion would only have served to confuse him, after all."
"Do you think he'll remember about tipping us?", said Tiny Tim the Solstice Singer and ex-assassin in a rather anxious voice.
"If he doesn't I certainly will", Dekaras said. "I will see you both at the Guild later, I assume?"
"Right you are!", Poppy exclaimed, brown curls bouncing merrily. "Now come along, Tim! I want you to do some Solstice Songs at the feast tomorrow and…" The halfling assassin and the quarter-ogre waved goodbye and left, intent upon their conversation.
"That concludes the first part of this night's business", Dekaras said in amused voice as Edwin and his Mother entered the room. "And now for a real challenge. Is everything in order, Mistress?"
"It is", Elvira said, a satisfied smile on her face. She was bundled up in a heavy red cloak, and her eyes were shining with anticipation. "I will be coming along of course. Otherwise the spell won't stay active long enough."
For a moment it looked as if the assassin was about to object, but then he clearly changed his mind. "Very well", he said. "As long as you remain in the sled there should be no danger to speak of."
Edwin seized this moment to open his mouth. "Then I can come too?" he asked.
"Most certainly not!" Dekaras said. "This is not for children."
"But it is, really", Edwin protested. "Solstice is for children, everybody knows that. And this is Solstice celebrating. That book said so."
"No. You are not coming. Go to bed and think of your Solstice presents or something."
"I'd rather think of yours", Edwin said. His heart was pounding wildly as he took out a rather squashed looking present from behind his back and held it out to his tutor with trembling hands. The wrapping paper had come undone here and there and the string had more knots on it than was strictly necessary. Dekaras gave it a long, hard look and then turned his gaze on Edwin. Those black eyes might as well have belonged to a basilisk. Edwin certainly felt as if he was about to turn to stone at any moment.
"And what is this, pray tell?" Dekaras said, weighing the package in his hand. To the boy's ears it sounded more like 'Prey, tell'.
"It's…er…a Solstice Present", he hesitated. Then he launched into a hurried explanation, speaking so rapidly that the words came tumbling out of his mouth all tangled up. "I know you said not to buy anything, but I didn't, really, honestly. Imadeitmyselfreally."
"Really", the assassin said, raising an eyebrow. "Hm. Well, I suppose I cannot fault your logic there, boy. And I am interested in seeing what you have come up with." He gently unfolded the crumpled wrapping paper and then stared at the contents. It was a mug made from clay. You could tell it was a mug because it had 'Mugg' written on it in large letters. It had two ears, both of which looked as if they were about to fall off if anybody actually dared try to lift the mug by them. The edges were uneven and leaf-thin, the bottom thick. Somebody had obviously spent hours of careful work on it, as shown by the many small fingerprints that covered it. On the front it bore the legend: 'World's Greattest Teascher'.
"Is it alright?" Edwin asked anxiously, jumping back and forth from one foot to the other. "I tried to use a spell to bake it and make it hard, but it didn't take all over so now it's kinda soggy here and there… Do you like it?"
"Like it?" Dekaras said, his voice curiously flat. "Like it?" He raised his eyes from the mug and looked at his student. The basilisk glare had been replaced with something else entirely. "It is beyond a doubt the most perfect and thoughtful Solstice Gift I have ever received. Thank you, young Edwin. I…will just go and put this somewhere safe." He cleared his throat a little and turned to leave. "You may come along on tonight's excursion, I think", he said.
"But that's not why I…"
"Maybe not. But I am impressed with you nevertheless. It seems that you are mature enough to value certain things correctly. Still, if you wish to stay…"
Edwin rapidly shook his head, his cheeks red with pride and excitement.
"Then go and put some warm clothes on. We are going on a sleigh-ride."
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Last modified on , March 2 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Laufey. All rights reserved.