Seken

A Short History of Two Kalbs, A Bard, and a Concerned Prostitute: Part 23

After Byron, Leo, and Jinko left, we awaited for the appointed time. The plan seemed to be to give them enough time to setup a deal while we tried to scry on their location. We saw some inconclusive images from Alice’s scrying and opted to leave before they could find our location.

The kitchen… perhaps the less said the better? The head chef was well on his way towards putting an end to us meddlers in the kitchen. Good thing his staff seems to understand how he works.

We ran out of the chef’s eminent domain to the only safe place: the dance floor. There we danced, either acquitting or being fools as the shadows creeped down along the walls. Thankfully, it seems an initial deal had been struck with the Balanced Scale.

After that, we met with the Shadow thing that had been hunting us (which seems to have an affinity for Alice) and attempted to leave, which ended with Cinnamon, Jinko, and Cinnamon’s boyfriend all in different states of health.

After that failed attempt, we settled down for a few hours before going to the final trade meeting. And in a sudden reversal of yesterday, things seemed to go from untenable to barely dealable. Now, time to eat and sleep copiously.

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Cinnamon's Journal: In Which I Realize I am a Miserable Asshole

So after meeting up with the Super Secret Shadow Club, it was time to go back out through the labyrinth of the mind. I thought maybe because I’d done it once, I’d be able to handle it this time. Ha. Of course I ran into a false Ivraham. Telling me that I was a miserable asshole who’s always looking to make herself more miserable and drag people down with me.

I knew it wasn’t real – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true. Why do I keep trying to make myself miserable? I guess because I don’t really know how to be happy. If you asked me what I really wanted, what my big dream was, it would be to get out of this fucking city. But what would I do if I actually managed to get out? Some of the girls in the house talk about what they’re going to do when they get enough money to quit (ha), and it’s always stuff like opening a bar on a beach somewhere, or something cutesy like learning to paint, or opening their own house if they favor realism over imagination. They were all things they wanted to have. And there was nothing that I wanted have the way I wanted to not have to be in this city. Getting out of this city isn’t a dream – it’s the absence of a nightmare, the way cold is the absence of heat.

“But Cinnamon,” you say (and by you, I mean Byron), “what about what you have with Ivraham? Surely that’s something you want to have. Surely that’s something that can make you happy.” I mean – yes, I do want that, and when thinking about it doesn’t make me insane, it does make me happy. But you can’t hang your happiness on someone else. That’s not fair to them. And like false-Ivraham said – I can’t possess him. A person isn’t something you can have, like a beach bar. (And yes, I see the irony of a hooker saying this, but there’s a big difference between rental and ownership.)

But let’s put that aside for the moment. And let’s say this does work, and assume it does make us happy. Then what? We stay here in a city we hate, and eventually it kills him? Or we take to the road and…what? I follow him wherever? No. I’m done doing what I’m told just because someone’s kind to me (thanks, false Ivraham), and I’m not putting him in the position of having to give me purpose. Again, not fair to him.

And everybody wondered why I was so conflicted about getting with him. Oh gee, it’s only that it could only end in resentment or death.

Not to mention there’s always something in this city that seems to need doing, and it keeps dragging me back in. No, that’s not it. I tried leaving once and I came limping back, but it was my own damn fault. I had no plan because there was nothing I wanted other than to get out. I had nothing to work towards, so I didn’t know what to do.

It’s making me realize why Raisa and Varus drive me so insane. I envy them. They’re insufferable, but they have things they really want and believe in. Guiding aspirations and principles. Goals. Raisa just desperately wanted to be the best little evil wolf god shaman this world has ever seen, and by god she’s going to do it. Varus has goddamn divine visions – even if it’s not always clear why he gets them, it’s hard to feel like you lack purpose when your god smacks you in the face with it.

So that’s what I was thinking about while we were stumbling back through the manor, through the puddle of darkness (unpleasant, but we recovered our not-cat and Alice manages to make all-over purple look good, so there’s that) and into the Duchess’s chambers, so you’ll have to forgive me for being a little fuzzy on the details. When people said that the arrangement with the balanced scale was sucking the life out of her, I was unprepared for the….literalness of how that would look. Holy shit.

Subsequently the shadow tentacles attempted to bust in the door, and we had a really interesting argument with the Duchess’s guards over the details of lockdown protocol. We finally manage to get them to open the damn door and we’re off for the dumbwaiter when Varus’s eyes roll back in his head – can’t he ever pick a convenient time to get a divine vision? – and he tells me he’s looking out through the bars of my crib, listening to two men and a woman talk about what they’re going to do with me, the fucking elf. The woman’s clearly my mother. The other two guys – the duke and my father? Maybe one of them’s a rep from Ssama? Daleena says not to kill me, that “we can make her useful.” And then they start talking about money. Huge sums of money. Someone says “I’ll pay for eight years. She has to break even by then.”

So I punched Varus in the face. Then I thought about what this might have meant. (The vision, not the punching.) Why would house Mann want to make me “useful” at the Big House? Sure, it might be useful to have someone to gather information about Ssama – but it’s not like I can do that if they pretend I don’t exist, and just what was I supposed to accomplish by age eight, anyway? As for “breaking even,” all I did as a kid was bus tables and stuff – not exactly the kind of money House Mann would be interested in. Whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, apparently I did it, because the money for my upkeep is still coming into the house – Herrik told me that.

None of this makes any sense. In conclusion, I am a miserable bastard who poisons everything I touch and I need a drink. Possibly ten.

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A Short History of Two Kalbs, A Bard, and a Concerned Prostitute: Part 22

Actually getting to the Duchess has been tricky. We managed to make our way through the maze again without losing our minds. In fact, I think each of us saw a vision. My vision was a glimpse of the true nature of Aisling and being utterly terrified of what I saw. More than that, of who and what she actually was.

The one who saved me tugged at the edge of my mind. An old man with a long beard… It came to me in another fugue state- Benjiro. I don’t know what to think. Why would the maze return something useful? Was it truly Aisling and Benjiro? Or simply a trick to test my faith?

I banished these questions from my mind as we made our way to the Duchess. We wandered awkwardly through some political tete-a-tetes and came to a hallway made of shadows.

After attempting a number of methods to remove this trap, we simply ran through it after collecting Big Brother Chip. We finally got to the Duchesses chamber and her retinue of ‘host guards’. We left most of the speaking points to Leo and Byron, but it seems we managed to arrange a meeting with the higher ups in the Balanced Scale.

Oh, and a giant shadow tentacle thing almost came through the bottom of the door, but I had my Archon create enough light to drive it off. After some protocol bureaucracy, we managed to get the plan underway.

At this point we are waiting for Leo, Byron, and Jenko to make their way down the dumbbell while we wait here…

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Byron's View: Who knows what darkness...

It turns out that some people are just terribly uncouth. Having been pointed in the correct direction we decamped, and made our way to the current place of our erstwhile companion Ivrahim. We found that the antechamber to his place of captivity was taken up by the “Self Unchained” fellows. They were quite churlish, and seemed to want to take Varys’ name or something. I stared the speaker down, and they demoted him and decamped. We then rescued Varys from a flood of tiny shadows, and proceeded to the area of broken minds.

Here we experienced a number of strange events, people disappearing going into odd places, that kind of thing, but we all made it to the end relatively intact. Upon arrival we were greeted by one of the shadows wearing a grinning mask, and after some introduction by my dear brother, allowed to enter. What followed was a long discussion of the political situation, and how things could be solved until I came up with a brilliant observation about the contract: Wizardry. It was essentially Wizardry, drawing upon the power of a god to power magics is wizardry, and that is what was happening here. No one likes wizardry, and even the Balanced Scale would not wish to be associated with such a thing, now, would they?

So we’ve turned it into a matter of blackmail. Perhaps not the safest route, but perhaps less dangerous than a frontal assault.

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Leo's View: Shadows of the Mind

Thanks to Big Brother Chip’s pointing the way, we had a good idea of where to find Ivraham. Knowing the Manor, Alice got us there in good time. There was a greeting party of smug-assed Self Unchained in the front room, blocking our way, but I basically just walked past them while Byron made scary faces at them. Seems they backed off and the rest of the party followed on towards Ivraham’s room.

It was FULL of shadows, excepting the bubble he’d made around himself. Varus did something to calm the shadows down, and we were able to get Ivraham out. The Self Unchained guys were decamping, leaving a hanging piece of meat that was clearly once a partygoer as a sign they’d been there. Charming.

We started through the section of the house that we’d been warned about, that would have psychic resonances from people having memories forcibly pulled out of them. Truth be told, I’m not sure even knowing that prepared any of us for how it manifested, which was a series of this-is-a-bad-dream rooms that hinged one to the next and randomly seemed to suck us in and spit us out. Eventually we made our way through to the Sequestered on the far side.

Shay was there, along with several others. She gathered who she called the most influential of the ones there – Car’Alam, with a fixed smile on his mask and an almost-constant sense of anger about him; Cecelie, who seemed to be made up of tattered shadow-twigs; Tedorum, big and buff in armor, and Maesk, who was childlike. Thelassia, Shay’s mother, was not present, thankfully.

I presented our pitch – that the party should end before it claims the Duchess’ life. They confirmed that the Messengers and Unbound might be able to convinced to help with this, and also mentioned the Shattered as possible allies. One approach suggested was to break the magic voice-box that link Martin (second-in-command, on site) with Harton (in charge of the Balanced Scale, but not on the premesis.)

In pondering through different angles, arguments, and possibilities, Byron started doing that talking-to-himself thing, and eventually I tuned in to what he was muttering about. Wizardry. That the Balanced Scale’s Contract with the Duchess creates a direct routing of power to them through the Duchess’ connection with Demias. Stealing Divine power would be an unpopular schtick if word got around.

Some of the group wanted to just lay this out in the open for all the Market to consider, but I think it would be more politic to allow Martin and Harton to make the wise business decision without word getting out. It would allow them to save face, rather than publicly shaming them and putting them on the defensive. Of course, this conversation will need to be delicately worded so that they don’t get their hackles up right off the bat. And we definitely will have a contingency plan of “tell everyone” if they decide to dispose of me and Byron. Alice has said she will scry on us from the Duchess’ rooms so that the rest of the party has a real-time connection to what is happening.

I admit, I’m still creeped out that she scryed on me at the party twice, but knowing she’s doing it as I go into a Situation feels a lot better than the surprise peekaboo game.

And… hey, is that JINKO that just walked in???

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Cinnamon's Journal: Fuck the landscapes of the mind and also everything else

Once again I find myself doing what I do best: blundering around some complex situation involving magic, the divine, and/or noble politics and trying to give the impression that I’m not totally incompetent. Thanks to Alice’s know-how, we made it upstairs towards where Ivraham supposedly was. Unfortunately, to get there we had to get through the Dismemberment Welcome Wagon. Fucking terrifying. Fortunately, Byron can be just as fucking terrifying with a bit of a nudge (who knew)? Varus was then able to dispel the shadows – bless him, and I genuinely mean that. Thus having recovered him, that meant it was time to head into the Labyrinth of the Mind. Great. Of course I fell into some kind of thought pitfall in a room of mirrors – eventually Ivraham got stuck in there as well, and he couldn’t hear me. We both managed to get out of there eventually, and ran smack into shadow-politics. Oh god, it is just the worst. How do we blackmail/squeeze out the Balanced Scale? How the fuck should I know? Do I look like a guy who has a plan? There’s a reason Herrik handles all the business stuff. I know how the house works, but I don’t understand how it runs any more than I understand why the moon waxes and wanes or why gravity is a thing.

In the midst of this Varus (that fucking guy) noticed Ivraham’s eyes were fixed and basically asked him why he was Xeph, and oh my god, Varus, you can’t just ask people why they’re Xeph!

Fortunately, just when I thought I would be entirely consumed by awkwardness and a convergence of metaphysical politics that is absolutlely above my paygrade, something came crashing into the room. JINKO! THANK FUCKING GOD. Turns out the Labyrinth of the Mind isn’t that hard to traverse when you don’t have a mind per se. No worries. Awesome to see him.

No sign of not-cat, though. Sad. I wonder if he and Chip will ever meet. That should be

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A Short History of Two Kalbs, A Bard, and a Concerned Prostitute: Part 21

Well, an assortment of strange things happened on our path through. To retrieve Ivraham, we had to make our way through the Duchal Labyrinth. Alice seemed to know her way through the chambers, perhaps from her earlier days as a supplier.

That is when we met the men in devil masks. Oh dear gods. They seemed to have taken complete personal freedom into a strange new world. Full of “I want your eyeballs” and “You’ve got a pretty name”. Byron thankfully drove them off with a solid frown.

Ivraham’s room was filled with darkness. We could have fought a battle here, but I extended my magic to calm the emotions of the shadows here. We skedaddled out.

After this I saw a maze-like creature that seeks to devour our experiences and hates the Gods. Being a seer can be problematic like that. We managed to stumble through these illusions. Success by blind luck, but I don’t think this place understands us well enough that we’d be stubborn enough to move forward.

We managed to make our way through the maze, whereupon we met Leo’s friends. And began making the plan to blackmail the Balanced Scale. Making it unprofitable to stay is the best course of action… but how?

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Leo’s View: Thanks, Shadow-Brother

It took asking around, but I caught up with Shay eventually. She brought me into a small room on the second floor to talk. One of the shadows twitched — should’ve marked that at the time, but I was intent on trying to pitch my end-the-party-and-free-yourselves plan to her. She said there was a group of Sequestered of her particular faction that I should speak with, but that they’re hard to get to, through a section of the third floor that’s painful for people who dream to travel through.

(Later on, once we’d all put our heads together, the group consensus is that the area probably has magical echoes of pieces of people being ripped out, and that hollow something-missing feeling ever afterward.)

Shay took her leave, and I started down the hall, but saw Cinnamon, tall in her half-mask, surrounded by some of the others, Byron notably missing. I got them into the small room and we got some information exchanged. Byron eventually wandered in, and we were all mostly up-to-speed, I think, when we realized that there was a shadow in the corner listening.

It was still pretty new to this plane, it seemed. It said that it reported to Shae’s mother, and that she would give it Wants. We offered to share some of our memories with it in exchange for not going right away to rat out our conversation. Of course, we wanted to share memories with it that would inspire loyalty to us, so Cinnamon shared the memory of Chip running toward her; I shared a memory of looking up to Byron when I was little, and Alice shared a memory of performing with her first love. The shadow manifested itself into a little cat at first, and then ran and clung around Byron’s face for awhile.

Good thing is, it sort of seemed to want to help us after this. Bad thing was, it still felt like it had to report to its lady, but was willing to try to not go back right away to report.

Varus had a vision where he saw Ivrahim cornered by a number of shadows coming at him. Ivrahim seemed to be holding his own, but apparently noticed Varus looking in, and asked for a bit of assistance, if we could get around to it.

“Big Brother Chip”, as the shadow-cat named itself, said that he’d be able to see where Ivrahim was if he went back to the shadow-realm, but that he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to come back as himself afterwards. He was strangely adorable — maybe I’m just saying that because I put a piece of my memory into him, but I think he actually was — and I think we were all sorry to see him go, but the chances of us finding Ivrahim in time without some kind of idea of where to look seemed vanishingly small.

And so the shadow-cat melted into shadow, and pointed diagonally upwards, looked like towards the next floor. We need to go through the 3rd floor anyway to get to the creepy ripped-memories place to hopefully win through to the Sequestered beyond, so… sort of on our way, right?

Thanks, Shadow Brother.

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Retrospective - Leo’s View: Smitten

It’s true, she isn’t at her best, but that just makes me want to protect her. Save her somehow so that she can get well… help her get well so that she can find her sparkle again. Not because I care about the parties, but because I care about her.

I’ve been smitten with Lady Oleana for years. I mean: gorgeous hedonistic Duchess – what’s not to love about that? But I’ve been thinking about purpose and motivation and drive in life recently, and looking around for role models, and it occurred to me a few days ago as I was swimming in one of her pools that Duchess Zeitgast has spent her adult life benefitting the world by giving people a place to unwind and just enjoy themselves. These are things the world needs more of — relaxation, pleasure, and joy. I figured out before she ever told me that the joy of her guests was a driving motivation for her, more so I think than her own enjoyment. Or rather, that they were tied together.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that hearing her talk about how the parties used to fulfil her was inspiring, and that I adore her for having shared her gift of joy to the world. It breaks my heart that she’s lost her delight of it.

I think that her joy, when she had it, was a good thing. Sacred, actually.

… Actually, demonstrably holy, given the touch of her goddess. No, I’m not just bullshitting here, I really mean it. I may not have been the best student in school, but a little bit of something sunk in. Or maybe I picked it up at the brewery. There’s a shining spark of truth in this that I can see, but can’t articulate.

Except that she binged and got tired of the taste of it, as happens eventually with any binge. And in an attempt to change things up, she ended up with… this.

I should backtrack.

Dr. Ashwall and I decided to try to find the Duchess to see if we could convince her to end the party. He dressed me up in robes so I could pass for his assistant Merriweather, and we went in through the servants’ entrance in back. He’d expressed worry about convincing certain party-posessed servants that he was supposed to be there, since he’s only supposed to come when the Duchess summons him, but he did a great job, and the enormous gatekeeper in the kitchen let us through without issues. Dr. Ashwall consulted with another servant several hallways later, and found that Lady Oleana was on the third floor.

Up some stairs – then over, and up some more. I’m not sure what was up the first set of stairs that he wanted to avoid, but the first set of stairs kept on going, so… something there, it would seem.

The first room we came through had a number of Sequestered and Comedy/Tragedians. I noticed that the Sequestered, by their actions and clothing, were separated into some clear factions. And that there are different sorts of masks that they have, depending on their rank. There were three that had masks like Shae’s, that seem to be of the highest rank – they were all built like her, tall and lithe, and each had unique costuming rather than uniforms that the others wore. The few individuals with the same mask that Shae gave me were wearing what looked like hastily-tailored clothes, not made-to-fit as some of the others had..

Ashwall eventually found the room that the Lady was in, and were admitted to the antechamber. One faction of Sequestered guards were ready to poke him full of holes — not Shae’s faction, since I saw her guard with a different group across the room. We were told to wait, as the Lady was in a meeting.

It was an exceptionally boring hour. There were five voices, two arguing loudly in a language I didn’t understand, and three answering them back quietly in Korpeshian. One of the loud voices sounded like Shae, which was confirmed when eventually — finally — the doors opened, and people emerged: an older-seeming Sequestered woman (that Lady Oleana later said was Shae’s mother), Shae, and a man from the Balanced Scale. He had his guards in the room with them, although Lady Oleana’s guards had had to wait outside. Makes sense, in hindsight, but noteworthy at the time.

When Shae came out she obviously noticed me. She looked at me for a long few moments and I looked levelly back through the smoked eyes of my plague-doctor Host mask. Finally she shrugged and turned away, saying only “Pity.” I hope I can still get her to talk to me …but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

So, finally we got to go in to talk to the Duchess. It was shocking to see her — she must have lost half of her body weight since I saw her last, and she’s clearly dangerously unwell. She was initially irritated with Dr Ashwall for intruding, and he made a sort of “over to you, kid” gesture, so I unmasked and started my spiel. I’d expected her to need to be convinced to end the party, so was surprised when she immediately said that the party is out of her control and is killing her.

She said that the party is a Market; the Balanced Scale’s Market, more precisely. That Patrons aren’t sponsors like an artist’s patron, but that they are Patrons of the Market, here to buy and sell and trade in Experiences, like Jeremy Renwald had described down in the ballroom.

She didn’t have much hope that we can stop the party, so long as it remains profitable to the Balanced Scale. The only directions she was able to point me are A) that the Sequestered (ie, the Shadows) are factionalized, as I’d noticed, and that the younger group (ie’, Shae’s crowd) is agitated that they’re losing ground.

I’m doing it again. Backtracking: the Shadows come from Somewhere Else, somewhere like a pale reflection of our reality. For a long while they were buying Experiences from the Balanced Scale. Then they discovered Lady Oleana’s parties, and she welcomed them in, and they experienced our reality exquisitely first-hand for a few years. She said they were almost childlike in their amazement at sensation and emotion – entranced by the sound of a single harp string being plucked. But then the Balanced Scale noticed the drop-off in business and got agitated, and convinced the Shadows that they owed restitution. And convinced Lady Oleana to hostess a party, catered and supported by the Shadows. Getting their revenge upon her as well, it would seem.

So the older crowd of Shadows wants to play a long game, and wait out the party, so that they can get back to / stay in the Balanced Scale’s good graces and maintain their status back home (wherever that is) as individuals who bring back many Experiences to the others. And the younger crowd feels that being stuck in this single party is dulling out their experiences and making them lose ground. Lady Oleana says that they would probably like to leave the party if they could, especially if they could go out into the rest of the world to experience it.

Anyway, so A) that, and B) that there’s a rumor that the Unbound began with a Patron who unmasked and decided he or she didn’t want to play the game, but is still unable to leave the Market. The refusal of the other Unbound to participate may be a reflection of this Patron.

So those are the only two things I have to go on. She said she didn’t know much about the other factions, that she’d stopped paying attention to it all awhile ago.

She told me that she was Touched by Jinen at her birth, and that her parties have always been a celebration and worship of Jinen, and that the energies pass through her to the goddess. Except that at this party, bad things are happening, and not only does that affect her, but it’s been affecting Jinen as well. Suddenly instead of joyful revelry serving as prayer to Jinen, murder and torture are added into the mix, and she says she feels Jinen changing with these changes.

I told her of the avatar of Marius that stopped me in the street a few weeks ago and asked me to look in on Jinen since he thought she’d “fallen in with a bad crowd”. Lady Oleana laughed, and had to agree. I asked her — since this is clearly wrapped up with divine issues beyond mortal ken — if she thought it would be intrusive to pray to Marius for help for his daughter. She smiled a shadow of a smile and said “frankly, I think she needs a good spanking.”

So I invited her to drink with me from my hip flask. The doctor began to object, but I argued that it was the only drink nearby that I knew wasn’t drugged with the narcotics. I doubt he could have stopped her anyway — she’s still got a fiery spirit to her. So we shared a drink, and I prayed.

I can only hope that Marius is paying attention. I know he’s busy, but.. this is serious. If Jinen is changing toward darkness and there’s still a chance to shift her back towards joy… we cannot pray enough.

Lady Oleana said, afterward, that she felt hope for the first time in a long time. That’s small, but it’s something.

That was pretty much all there was to say. She doesn’t have the energy to go out and about amongst the guests to try to petition for the party to stop. She said she needed to rest, but if the time comes for a push that needs her, she’ll be available. She indicated a preference to retire to her rooms.

“Top floor, East wing?” I asked, to confirm.

“My lord!” she exclaimed,

“Yes?” A questioning look.

“I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate for a handsome young lord to know where a lady’s bedchamber is.”

Damn to hell that I’m distracted by all this alien-plane-beings’-Market-changing-the-nature-of-Jinen mess, because that was a fucking beautiful straight line, and I didn’t come back with the answer it deserved. I can only hope that my smile counted for something.

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Retrospective - Leo’s View: Pragmatism Blows Donkey Balls

This is insane. There is no way this is possibly going to work.

Yesterday morning – well ah…. two afternoons ago, technically – I woke up on the pallet I’d snagged, and freshened up in the bathroom before heading downstairs. They were still serving breakfast, made-to-order in addition to the buffet. Good food. Delicious coffee.

Braced with a decent sleep and a good meal, I felt clear-headed enough to go in to the main mansion to see if I could start to get a read on what’s going on. The guard at the gate seemed nonplussed. He initially didn’t want to speak to me, but when pressed he explained that I was just so young. That the Duchess seeks to give all of her partygoers exactly what they want, and that what some people want might not be good for my pure young soul.

The sentiment was kindly meant. He really looked like he wanted to try to dissuade me from going in, although he knew that I was going to go in anyway. But this guy doesn’t have Feodor as his cousin. Rather than explain that my sadist cousin has a dedicated torture chamber in his home and has to pay resurrection fees up front before visiting whores in the Big House I just thanked the kindly guard and made my way on in.

It felt… wrong in there.

The ballroom on the first floor is huge, and magnificent. The far end is all glass. I’d been there the last time I was at Duchess Zeitgast’s home but this time it felt palpably different between the shoulder blades.

The first thing I noticed was that not everyone seemed to notice the Wrongness. There were some who clearly did, though. Some of them had an I-can-deal-with-this-shit attitude and were carrying on, most of them with posses of oblivious-seeming hangers-on. The others were all as alone as each one could be, with huge eyes and their backs against the wall.

The second thing I noticed was the demographics. More humans by far than not, but a sizable smattering of demihumans and subhumans. All of the subhumans were beautiful, though – centaurs, you know, not goblins. Almost all of the aware-seeming individuals were human, although a very few were not. The commonest age group in the room seemed to be mid-twenties, but there were ages up to fifties and sixties and down (self-evidently) into the teens.

I watched the pacing and interplay of the crowd for awhile to get a sense of the flow of things. It looked like the I-can-deal aware folks were faction representatives. Since they seemed like the most likely people to get information from, I intercepted one at the bar – his name was Ruffalo, maybe mid-thirties. He told me that the factions shifted a lot, although the Host was a constant – the Host being the servants of the house, evidently. He laughed when I used Shae’s term of “game” for what was going on. He said “if you see two giants throwing rocks at each other, do you know if it’s a game or a war?” He did grant that “contest” was a fair term.

He was willing to talk about the past few days, but as we talked I noticed he was avoidant about talking about how he’d come to be at the party, or his early days there. Eventually, curious about how he’d respond, I asked him about it point-blank.

What I did not expect was for him to go into a seizure.

I tried to clear the area around his head and called out for help. His doublet was constrictive, so I pulled it open. I hadn’t noticed earlier because of his courtier’s clothing, but he was built like a farmer. It was …odd.

Servants came rushing up and did all the right things. As they brought Ruffalo away one of them turned to the assembled worried crowd “It will be fine. Go back about your business. Have fun.”

And the vast majority of people there got this glazed look in their eyes and turned away to go back to what they’d been doing. The only four who didn’t get that look were some of the faction representatives I’d spotted earlier. They all looked right at me, clearly noticing me, but turned away with everyone else so as to not attract attention.

That’s when I realized that all of the faction representatives … something was wrong about them. Hard to put my finger on exactly what, but none of them seemed quite right. Like a farmer wearing courtier’s clothing. Something is off.

I attached myself to one of the Aware folks turning away, an older woman named Isadore. She told me about the Theosophists, wanting to understand the nature of the Divine. When I mentioned that I had an offer of patronage from another group she immediately jumped on it, telling me not to go with them, that her group was a much better choice. I asked what benefit she thought I would be to her, and what benefit she thought they would be to me. She offered an understanding of the Divine (albeit as only one part of a larger whole) as an incentive, and said she wanted to bring my understanding of the Divine into the larger picture.

She told me a bit about other factions – she was annoyed by the Scrivners and the Unbound, and scared as shit of The Yearning. I asked her about her time at the party and she told me the date she’d come, and the time from then to when she went upstairs to be Claimed. There was a gap of about a week after she was Claimed, but she didn’t see it. I tried to clarify, and she changed the date that she’d come in. I said I thought she’d come in the week before, and she replied that she had. She affirmed both dates equally, and seemed completely unaware of the discrepancy. I asked one of her hangers-on if he didn’t think that was odd, but he also didn’t hear a discrepancy in what she was saying. I said it must be my misunderstanding, apologized, and took my leave of them. I approached another one of the aware folk, a man who was sitting in one place but attended upon by many. His name is Jeremy Renwald, representative of The Balanced Scale, and he collects memories.

Jeremy was pretty expansive. I don’t know if his list was comprehensive, but what he told me was this:

Theosophists – want to understand the Divine. On the upper floors they wear Domino masks styled like glasses.

Scrivners – want to record everything, want to collect one of everything. Their masks upstairs vary in shape but all have handwriting all over them.

The Balanced Scale – Jeremy’s group, merchant/traders; upstairs they bind their face in strips of cloth. They claim to broker even trades between other factions.

The Messengers – can go to all floors, claim neutrality, but Jeremy thinks they’re planning a blitzkrieg when the time is right. They cover their lower faces, either with masks or scarves.

The Unbound – wear no masks, refuse to participate. It’s unclear whether they have a patron or not. I admit, I kind of like them. Part of me wants to just say “fuck it” and go up the stairs to see what happens.

The Yearning – Cover their whole heads. Are cut off from the gods, and are said to steal divinity and/or be able to cut off individuals from the gods. This understandably scares everyone shitless.

The Host – Duchess Zeitgast and her staff, wear Carnivale masks

Tragedy / Comedy – are all about finding the balance of duality. Upstairs they move in pairs, with two masks, one happy one sad.

The Sequestered – Shae’s group. Treat the proceedings as a serious game. They look for very specific puzzle pieces. Upstairs they wear porcelain masks like the one Shae gave me.

The Self, Unchained – upstairs wear stylized devil masks. Nothing is forbidden / everything is permitted — Jeremy says never be alone with them, because they embrace their dark desires.

The Shattered – individuals whose minds have shattered, but are still a cohesive group. They wear cracked and damaged masks, often versions of the other factions’ masks.

Jeremy also said he’d been at this party for two years — not at this location, they’d moved here three months ago, he said. As far as I’m aware this party only started three weeks ago, but either his timeline is messed up or the party was going on in private here well in advance of the public’s awareness of it.

I asked how most people go about deciding which faction to choose and he seemed a little baffled. He indicated that most people on the first floor would never be chosen. This confused me, since I’d had offers from both Shae and Isadore, but he said that was highly unusual.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to find myself self-aware in here, and I’m pleased to be in high demand, but what the fuck is going on?

Curious about what was keeping the terrified ones inside, I talked with an elvish girl next. She was only 19, so what, about ten years old if she were human. Barely came up to my shoulder. Her name is Tamalia, and she said she’d been there three days. I asked if she’d tried to leave and she said she had, several times, but she never got very far out before she felt irresistably called back. She said she hated it and was scared. The whole building smells like blood to her, although I didn’t smell it. She said the shadows moved when they thought no one was looking. I asked her to show me — I almost didn’t see it, but after a bit I did — some shadows bent towards people walking by, as if they were drawn towards the people. It was downright eerie.

I asked if she’d talked to any of the other people along the wall and she said no. I was curious what other people sensed about the place, so I brought her over to a man nearby. He really didn’t want to talk, though. He said it was Fifth-day, and I said no, it’s Third-day. Realizing, I think, that he’d lost almost a week, he freaked out and bellowed that he had to get out of there. He ran off. I tried to follow in his wake, but he lost me quickly.

Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to try to leave. I realized when I got outside that it was later than I’d expected, probably about eleven thirty. I expected it to be harder, but I walked out from the main house, out through the main gate, and out into the street. I turned to look back, but didn’t feel a compulsion to return like Tamalia said she had. I continued down the street and around the corner, and down to the District gate. I checked the date with the guard there, and yes, it was still Third-day, about to be Fourth-day. I wrote a note out to Cinnamon and the crew letting them know I was all right, then went back up to the party.

Just inside the gate I saw Jayson, a friend of mine from the Musters. He had some people he wanted me to meet, so I let myself get dragged further in to the party outside. I vaguely thought about going back to the main house, but after spending the whole afternoon and evening in the creepy weird place it was nice to be out in the fresh air. We headed over to where there was dancing, and I danced a few sets. I stepped out to get a drink and ended up at a table under a tree with those little lanterns on strings overhead. A pretty girl named Patrice with lively brown eyes snuggled up on my lap, which would have been nice if she hadn’t started talking my ear off about the merits and flaws of different styles of dancing slippers. I was sort of trapped under her, and couldn’t add anything to the conversation, so just kept nodding. Eventually a girl passing by caught my pleading glance and asked me sweetly to dance. Her name was Leda – and it turned out she was an excellent dancer. Also, curvy and soft in all the right places. And, as it turned out, very willing to wander off with me after we’d danced several sets. And very sexually creative.

I was hungry afterward, she wasn’t, so we parted amicably and I went off to look for some food. I found a buffet which had these amazing custard puffs with berries inside. I loaded up a plate with them and followed the sound of distant music to where a lithe dancer had just started a Dance of Seven Veils, although I think she probably had closer to twelve. They were all very cleverly tucked, but I’ll admit that’s not the part I was watching.

Jayson caught up with me and dragged me off before I could talk to the dancer. We ended up at a large table a few gardens away, discussing philosophy into the wee hours.

I woke up… in a pallet upstairs in the guest house. It was about two in the morning on Fourth-day, they told me. Blearily, I went to the gate to see if I could get out. “Feeling better, M’lord?” one of them asked. I asked what he meant and he said I’d passed out in front of the gate about an hour before as I tried to exit. And I realized that the whole night after I remembered getting out had all been a dream.

The guard’s name was Wilson – he got vaguely threatening when I asked about leaving the grounds. His compatriot’s name was Mayhew, and he was friendlier but not much more helpful. He just kept on repeating that he strongly advised against trying to leave, m’lord. He said it was his job to see to the safety and well-being of the Duchess’ guests. He started some fishy story about having dropped his matchbox and wouldn’t you pick it up for me, m’lord, which I started to refuse until I caught the look in his eye that he was trying to tell me something without saying it outright. So I picked up the matches and lit one for him to have a smoke. The shadow behind him did not move in the flickering flare of the light. I gave him a nod, thanked him, and went back into the party.

Just inside the gate I saw Jayson. Of course I did. And he had some people he wanted me to meet. Disturbed and curious, I let myself get dragged further in to the party outside. We headed over to where there was dancing, and I danced a few sets. I stepped out to get a drink and ended up at a table under a tree — a different tree, mind you, on the other side of the dance floor — with those little lanterns on strings overhead. And who should join the crowd I was with but a familiar girl I’d never met before. She introduced herself to me. Leda. My rescuer. Feeling like I already knew her, I invited her to sit on my lap. She snuggled in – her hair smelled just like I remembered it – and then started talking… about the merits and flaws of different styles of dancing slippers. And I was completely trapped under her, transfixed by the surreality of it. And then a pretty girl with lively brown eyes passed by and I cast her a desperate look and she dimpled a smile and asked if I’d like to dance, m’lord. And it turned out she was an excellent dancer. Also, flexible as hell, as it turned out, after she wandered off with me after we’d danced several sets. And very sexually adventurous. She looked just like the girl named Patrice I remembered from my dream, but her name was Nathalia.

I was hungry afterward, she wasn’t, so we parted amicably and I went off to look for some food. The buffet was just where I remembered it, but instead of custard puffs there were these chocolate pastries with caramel and whipped cream inside. I loaded up a plate with them and followed the sound of distant music to where a lithe dancer had just started a Dance of Seven Veils, and this time I actually counted — there were thirteen veils. They were all very cleverly tucked, but again, I’ll admit that’s not the part I was watching. The music was almost the same, but this dancer was shorter, with broader hips, than the one I remembered. Her dance was equally exotic, but definitely not the same dance.

Jayson, damnably enough, showed up just as she was finishing, and I didn’t get to talk to this dancer either. But instead of dragging me off to discuss philosophy he got me to join his team in an informal but loudly declaimed hedge-maze challenge. I guess the team of the first people to get to the center of the maze technically wins, but mostly it was a fun drunken stumble through the maze. There were pockets of lawn at a lot of the dead ends, some large, some small, most of which had good things going on. I have no idea who won, if anyone did.

I hadn’t seen him for hours, but when I got out of the maze Jayson was sitting on the ground nearby, stoned out of his mind. I got him up and walking, and we got to talking about drugs, and mental clarity, and I mentioned Flayleaf that that girl had told me about the night before. We figured we’d try it, so asked one of the servants to bring some over.

It was fascinating stuff. Didn’t clarify the cosmic order of things the way the girl had claimed, but patterns did seem a bit clearer. Jayson didn’t like it though, since it was, in his words, ‘harshing on his mellow’. He went off to go be sick.

We were close to the front of the estate, and there was a small crowd gathering near the main gate. The man who had run out of the ballroom inside the main house earlier in the evening was shrieking and moaning and thrashing on the ground. The staff seemed to know what they were doing; under the direction of one who was clearly the doctor, some of them picked him up and started carting him off. Curious what they were going to do with them, I followed.

The doctor had them take the man into the servants’ quarters. No one was there to stop me, so I followed them in. One girl got all flustered when she realized I was there – she’d obviously been told to accommodate guests’ whims and to not let visitors into the servants’ quarters, and was caught between the two orders. I stepped inside the sick man’s room to try to break the stalemate in her mind.

The doctor clearly assumed I was another servant, because he asked me for ice without even looking up. I called back into the corridor to see if someone was bringing ice, and then the doctor noticed me. He sort of flipped out at first, but I seemed to convince him that I had good intentions and was only following up on the well-being of the fellow I’d been talking with earlier in the day. He said that this man was the 7th with these symptoms this evening. That he’d have a fever, prodigious strength, would likely break the bed frame he was bound to, but that eventually he’d detox. I mentioned my little “passing out” problem by the front gate, which he dismissed as dehydration from partying too hard.

We talked a bit more and he is clearly very loyal to the Duchess and her household. By stressing that I wanted to promote the health and well-being of the Duchess and her guests, I think I got onto his good side. His name, he said, is Dr. Ashwall. It came out later that his first name is Matteo, but I won’t call him that unless he calls me Leonardo again.

Once he seemed to decide that I was on his side, he asked me to take off my shirt so he could do a physical evaluation. He seemed relieved not to see… something… on my chest, but had me take off my pants as well. He caught his breath when he saw something on my leg. A mark, as five bruises from fingertips. Probably while I slept, he said. In a later conversation he said that the servant on the fourth floor of the guest house showed up with the party three weeks ago and that she is NOT one of the Duchess’ people. I mentioned the weird shadowy figure. He agreed that it was entirely likely that people were being marked as they were carried to the pallets or as they slept. He also indicated that a number of people around – servants and non – weren’t human. Not demi- or sub- human, but not-of-this-world not-human.

The mark will migrate, he said. When it gets to someone’s heart they only care about the party, nothing else. He said that all of the food and drink upside is “more than it seems” and that detoxing from all of it was a way to slow down the migration of the mark. He offered me a padded room rather than being chained to a bed. I didn’t like the idea at first — rather, let me clarify that. There’s this orgasmically mind-blowing party going on outside and he was asking me to willingly give it up so I could go feral-psychotic with nightmares in a padded locked room for sixteen hours and then not go back to the party.

I may be reckless, but I’m not stupid, more’s the pity. I let him lock me in. I just couldn’t ignore everything I’d seen – the terrified little Elven girl who just wanted to go home, the unblinking eyes and shallow breathing of the man chained to the bed in the next room, the shadows that move towards people, the faction leaders who go upstairs and come back downstairs changed to something Wrong. The people who seem brainwashed into following Hosts’ orders. The dark nimbus around everything. The servants who shouldn’t be there.

All right, honestly, I might have been able to ignore all of that for just one more day at the party if it weren’t for the mark on my leg which he assured me would migrate upwards until it covered my heart and robbed me of my free will entirely. Everything else is unconscionable, but THAT scares the everloving shit out of me.

The night… was as bad as he’d warned me. I lost about sixteen hours, all told, although I only remember it as a series of nightmarish images. I’d shredded the pillow I’d asked for, and put several dents in the walls. Got some pretty new bruises, the gods know how.

When I came back to myself Dr Ashwall gave me some “safe” food – not terribly well cooked, but I ate it anyway. He said his only idea was to get us both inside using Host masks, calling me “Merriweather” his assistant, and to try to get to the Duchess and convince her to stop trapping people there. He doesn’t think she’ll listen to him, but somehow thinks she might listen to me. I have no idea why he thinks she’ll listen to me – he says he can’t get her out of the main house and can’t detox her there, which means that she’ll be under the full influence of whatever-the-hell is brainwashing people.

I described Anton to Dr. Ashwall – Jayson had said that Anton had gone into the main house almost straightaway after coming to the party. Of course he did. Dr. Ashwall said he’d try to keep an eye out for him and see to his well-being. It’s entirely likely that he’ll have a mask on, but he’s on the low end of the age demographic, and in better shape than a lot of the folks I saw on the first floor. And he has that sort of distinctive spikey shaggy haircut and duelist scars on his forearms. I’m not sure what mask he’d be wearing if he’s not Unbound… probably Self, Unchained or Sequestered. Possibly Shattered, if he didn’t deal well, but I’d be surprised. Hopefully not The Yearning, gods forbid.

I’d only had about an hour of sleep – when I was passed out from 1 to 2 in the morning – and had lived about seven hours in that hour, then lived it again, then did sixteen hours of nightmare superstrength detox. I was pretty wiped, so the doctor agreed that there was at least enough time for me to sleep a little bit before we go in.

This seems hopeless, but I don’t have a better plan just now, so we’ll give it a go.

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