so, i'm at a con this weekend: pop culture con in st. charles, il. if you're in the area, y'all should come by and see me. i'll be at the tentacle-made studios booth because--well, i'm tentacle-made studios.
i apologize that the last couple of days worth of nano is coming to you so late. battle scenes are not my jam. (really, my jam is basically introspection and angst, so there's very little that's my actual writing jam.) also, since i'm at con, i might not have a lot to share until monday.
the life of con kid.
a special note--BECAUSE THIS IS A LOT OF PEOPLE TO MANAGE IN A SCENE--i literally had to role everyone's initiative.
my critical role fixation and dungeons & dragons background comes in handy on occasion.
as always, the more subtle, italicized version is available here.
The courtyard was strangely empty when the contraptions came to a rest inside the wall that surrounded the seat of the Court of Miracles and the chinaberry forest that was cultivated around it.
Despite the Court of Miracles being in a perpetual spring-time, the chinaberry trees were always at full fruit: jewel-bright berries against leathery sharp-edged surreally blue-teal leaves supported by dark, dark, dark wood.
There was nothing natural about these chinaberry trees.
Which was one of those things that Grey had always loved about them: an imperfectly placed aesthetic against soft and new and young and dewy.
Something wintery in the spring.
But, the courtyard should be bustling—should be filled with the denizens of the castle coming to welcome their Scion home, welcome the Scions of the Courts in joy and alliance (or, at least, fake it well), should at least have Grey’s progenitors and Lux looking sleazy and petulant and kind of awuful—yet, here it was, empty.
Boy-howdy, this isn’t right.
Armitage came to stand beside Grey looking wary as Cassius gambled up beside Tove, and for a quick moment, Grey was unsettled and unsteady and uncertain about the placement of Armitage and Cassius—especially after what happened in the Between Woods, but they were looking as concerned about the lack of people as Grey was feeling and actually continued to move past Grey, move past Tove, to stand before all of them in a protective stance.
In Grey’s peripheral vision, they saw Ione relax the tiniest bit and surreptitiously pocket the dagger that she had drawn.
Far—far, far, far—off Grey heard a sound that—wasn’t right.
A sound that didn’t belong in the Court of Miracles.
A sound that hadn’t been heard in the Court of Miracles since the Venery War during the dark times when the Courts fought each other with tooth and feather, hoof and claw.
A Bukkene Bruse.
It was a fucking Gruff.
Gruffs, magickally created constructs that were used in the Venery War, were supposed to be extinct.
I guess no one told them that.
With no though—just pure, adrenaline-fueled reaction—Grey fumbled the pocket-globe out of their shoulder-holster-hoodie-thing and triggered open a portal back to the Euigilans Somnium in the Gate Arch that led back towards the Between Woods.
Several hundred feet away from where they were all standing like bait.
Grey had no idea where in the Euigilans Somnium it had opened into, but anywhere was going to be better than here in about a minute-and-a-half.
As the portal opened far behind Grey, Killian squeaked a little in surprise—well, less of squeak and more of hissing hoot—looking confused. “What’s going on?” Killian leaned over to Grey, quietly cutting thin lines across the backs of his arms, arcane energy already beginning to spark.
Grey looked around and could see that everyone in their immediate group had heard Grey swear and then seen them trigger the portal: Ione was already pulling her six-barreled flintlock from across her back, loading it, as her curved falchions hung from her belt, peace-binding loose; Aedeir had already pulled out or manifested or something a glaive; Mad March Grey’s lithe pooka body seemed to be becoming hulking and huge and dangerous; Zoii, with a squelching noise, disappeared into the ground; Grey could already see blood reddening Tove’s court finery; Cassius had unsheathed a long-sword from somewhere; and Persis was stepping further and further back, stringing a bow with little finesse.
Armitage, however, had kept walking towards the sound that, apparently, only he and Grey were hearing.
“We’ve got Gruff incoming,” Grey shouted, drawing their own rapier and pepper-pot. “We need to get out of here now.”
There’s a sputtering noise that Grey thinks might have been Killian, but it might have been Cassius too—accompanied by someone saying “How in all that’s holy do you know that?” and someone else saying “Where in the actual fuck did they come from?”—but it was a sound of such intense disbelief that there was room for nothing else for a moment.
Grey was basically feeling the same sentiment at a cellular level.
Then, badness occurred, and chaos erupted around them.
Fire and smoke and loud, loud, loud billowed around them all—blinding and deafening and overwhelming them—and Grey immediately lost tract of everyone but Persis and Killian.
Grabbing Persis by the shoulder, Grey dragged her towards the portal back to the Euigilans Somnium. This time, Persis resisted, trying to return to where the rest of their group was located. “You need to go!” Grey shouted at Persis over everything, shoving her towards the portal as Killian protected their backs. “You need to run.”
“I’m not leaving any of you behind!” Persis shouted back as the ground bucked beneath them, nearly knocking Persis, Grey, and Killian off their feet. “You’re going to need my help! I know things, remember?”
Grey prevaricated for a moment—stay here and fight with Persis and risk everyone else needing Grey’s help or go help everyone else and risk Persis—and turned to Killian. “I need you to stay here with Persis and protect her.” Killian nodded quickly and solemnly, violet-black swirling over and around and through Killian’s fingers. Grey turned back to Persis. “You, think on how we can stop Gruffs. It has to be in that encyclopedic noggin of yours somewhere; you need to find it. Once you have it,” Grey motioned to Killian. “Y’all are going to have to find a way to let us know—”
“Cassius,” Killian said double-quick. “He’s an Orpheum.”
“That’ll do.” Grey agreed. “Once you’ve done this, I need you to get out Persis. I know you want to help, but the best way that you can help us out right now is with information and back-up.”
Persis looked like she was going to argue but ended up nodding her head hard once.
Grey kissed Persis and then Killian on their checks and ran back into the fray.
So far, it seemed that everything that had happened in the whole minute-and-a-half that had transpired since Grey had first heard the Gruffs out in the distance was that someone had mined the courtyard with Euigilans Somnium artillery, and what had caused all the fire and sound and awfulness, were things that hadn’t actually hurt anyone of their number.
And, really, if that wasn’t some sort of miracle (sic), Grey didn’t know what other terminology to use.
Okay, or, maybe it was just the dumb luck of a turncoat in the Venery not knowing how Euigilans Somnium ranged munitions actually worked.
Whichever, Grey would take it.
Because, the Gruffs were finally making their way into the Court of Miracles’ courtyard.
Three of them.
Because Gruffs always came in iterations of three.
Welcome to irony.
They were monstrously huge and looking more wildly dangerous that Grey had ever seen in the Court of Miracles’ history books, were walking on cloven hooves the size of large barrels; their long, very goat-like faces holding snarls that they shouldn’t actually be able to make; their eyes solid, depthless, flat black; their horns arching up and up and up and then back and back and back, an arch of bone and terror; their bodies were covered in rope-y not-fleece and things that were supposed clothes; their everything liberally splattered in red, rust, and black—the colors of differently aged blood having been spilt—and they were headed towards Grey’s still shocked and dazed chosen family.
Grey unfurled their wings and glided back into their line of defense, alighting next to Aedeir, who turned so that they were back to back with each other. “I always forget that you can do that.”
Grey smirked at Aedeir over their shoulder, trying to find solace in a bravado that they weren’t feeling when faced with magickal murder-machines, the barest quiver of wings giving Grey away. “Honestly, I forget sometimes too.”
As Grey spoke, the sounds that they have been hearing crescendo-ed as the Gruffs in question came lumbering up through the chinaberry forest—except that lumber wasn’t quite the right word.
It was more like tesseracting.
Which was so not how Gruffs were supposed to move.
“Fuck,” was all that Aedeir uttered when the Gruffs basically materialized.
“Someone’s been upgrading them.” And, Grey knew with a certainty that was kind of terrifying that these were not some sort of leftovers of long-past wars that had been harbored and nurtured by the Myst and accidently found themselves here in the heart of the Court of Miracles. These were newly created, revised murder-machines that could only be here for one reason.
Assassinating the Scions.
With a swiftness that Grey found surprising, Zoii suddenly appeared in front of the Gruffs at the place where the cobbles of the Concentric Courtyard met the Chinaberry Forest and spun a wall of rose-brambles out of themselves to halt the progression of the Gruffs, while thorny vines tried to wrap around the Gruffs, catching two as a third batted it away with a roar that was somewhere between a deafening goat-bleat and a giant, very angry goose.
I suppose not everything can sound terrifying?
The un-entangled Gruff took a swipe at Zoii with its mace, and Zoii disappeared back into the ground from whence they came.
Wow, we they in a lot of trouble.
As Zoii slipped back into the ground, Ione was lining up her shot, aiming for one of the mostly free Gruff’s giant knees since two of the Gruffs were continuing to struggle with the brilliant brambles and vines that Zoii had somehow brought forth, and the third one was still loose and getting closer—and, Ione knowed that her shotgun wasn’t going to do more than really annoy the Gruff unless she was lucky, lucky, lucky.
But, there wasn’t really another option, now was there? Her falchions were going to have to be her last resort this time.
In that comfortable, comforting place between one breath and the next, Ione shot, watching as it impacted with the Gruff’s knee and—by some miracle of physics and luck—its knew just crumpled beneath it.
Ione cocked her gun and re-acquired her target.
Persis was too far away to have a really comprehensive understanding of what was going on, but Persis did recognize a Gruff when she saw one.
One of the joys and wonders of living in the Court of Miracles: encyclopedic knowledge of ancient weapons of mass murder.
Not because the Court of Miracles had used them—no, hulking constructs with a single-minded necessity were far too gauche for them—but because the Court of Miracles believed in ensuring that everyone had a chip on their shoulders the size of Antarctica before they were even old enough to speak.
But—Gruffs were just about the nastiest piece of work that Persis had ever come across aside from the magickal bindings that keep the Redcap Triumvirate and Otello literally bound to their own skulls for the rest of forever.
And, the rituals by which entities such as Mad March Grey were created and the giese used to bind Ione to Tove were basically right behind.
The Courts had a lot to answer for.
Not the time.
However, Persis could see how the Gruffs were moving in to engage Persis’ family—the closest thing to a family she had ever had—and Persis found herself lifting her bow—that bow that had caused her so many problems over the years, was still causing her problems—an arrow notched and heard Aedeir’s voice in her head as Zoii just appeared with brambles and vines and managing to hold two of the Gruffs to a standstill, no matter how momentary, saying Breathe in, two, three, four, five, and out, six, five, four, three, two, one, and again—
Persis loosed the arrow and watched as it flew with a purpose and a surety that Persis had never seen in her arrows before, split into light and sound and fury, and struck.
Just as Persis heard Ione’s precious Euigilans Somnium-made, Killian-magicked weapon.
Fuck me, we might actually get out of this alive.
The blood was already running down Tove’s arms from fine, precise lines—meant to bleed a lot yet not scar the skin, just as Tove had always been taught—when the Gruffs came into view.
And, all Tove could think was Those are so not right.
They really weren’t right—even for somethings that were built for war and destruction—they just looked wrong, like, they were eating the space around them and emanating a sickly red-violet-gray light, like a deep bruise, the blood so close to the surface.
Like they were a wound on the world.
Tove could see Aedeir and Grey, standing back to back like they were going to take on the world—and they might just have too—to Tove’s left while Mad March Grey was to Tove’s right looking particularly worrying with Cassius and Armitage standing between the rest of them and the giant goat-monsters that were moving towards them faster than anything that size had any right to move.
And, Tove knew that Zoii was out there somewhere hiding, waiting to attack again with her Meliae-granted speed, and that Ione was perched as high as she could get, ready with weapon and a keen eye. Tove could only hope that Persis was safely tucked away and that Killian’s absence meant that he was with her protecting her.
So, Tove did the only thing that she could do: cast a spell that ended with a radiant glow of showering sparks raining down upon the goat-monsters heads.
Where the sparks touched, everything was burning.
As the Gruffs were howling with the pain of the combined attacks of Tove, Ione, and—amazingly—Persis, Killian had the unfamiliar feeling of hope sink into his skin—an emotion that he was only able to recognize because of the people in this courtyard.
It was an important feeling.
However, as Killian watched two creatures similar in size to the not-carriages and all unnaturally long legs ending in wickedly hooked claws and black and white stripped spines and maws filled with rows and rows and rows of teeth—the word bandersnatch flickering through Killian’s brain—appeared in the courtyard behind Killian’s friends—and wasn’t that also a weird word to have in Killian’s repertoire now too?—knocking over the not-carriage that Ione had made her improvised sniper’s nest, sending her skidding almost the rest of the way to the castle, and charging towards Mad March Grey and Tove, apparently intent upon goring one or both
Killian couldn’t allow that; however, his spell wasn’t ready yet, still a simmering, low heat in his back and hands, needing more spilling of Killian’s blood to make it work, and as Killian sliced another, deeper line across his forearm, he saw one of the bandersnatches grappling with Mad March Grey as Mad March got one of his newly huge hands wrapped tight around the creature’s practically non-existent throat, and Tove somehow managed to dodge out of the way of curved claws that slashed and caught the hem of Tove’s court finery before Tove tumbled away.
Just as Killian was about to cheer because, damn, look at his friends go, one of the Gruffs who had been tangled up in Zoii’s vines and brambles tore itself loose and roared.
And, Killian felt the spell’s energy click into place.
Killian could do this.
With a few guttural, slip-slide words and a physical, arcane twist that Killian was certain looked ridiculous, impossible, and painful all at one, Killian released a bolt of solid violet-black energy directly into the first Gruff’s side.
And, it connected.
And, it flickered away leaving behind an incredibly angry Gruff—who was now looking at Killian and Persis.