Vae’s first stop was the home (or hospice, or prison) of an old friend (or client, or victim) of mine. She teleported her kite and its crew to a side-side-twig of a side-side-branch of Mrasteia, where seven winged lions made of ebony wood, with teeth of bronze and spikes of poisoned glass in their lashy tails, flew around ceaselessly. The children whined to see them, but Vae spoke a certain secret word, and they parted to let her pass.
They came to a small ledge in the low part of the Verticals, and there they landed. Poisonous sfthnidia trees were planted on either side of it, and they reared their tendrils back to hurl their deadly needles, but Vae twisted the essential world, and the needles passed them by.
At the back of the ledge was a mighty door of oak, eighteen feet thick and nine feet high, set to fill a small gap in the bare world-wood, and banded about with steel and lightning and the memories of sorrow. Such a door could not, in the ordinary course of events, be opened, but Vae twisted the essential world, and tugged on the door with the full strength of her body, and it crunched open and they could pass.
Deep in the crevice of the world-wood they came to a small chamber. And in this chamber there were certain things:
- A large cage of mice.
- A fountain of perpetual water and a mound of perpetual wheat, and a zone of perpetual destruction, to provide food and cleanliness for the mice.
- A branch of a tree, stuck in the cage by means of an old Locador spell; the rest of the tree grew elsewhere. On this branch there were many small thorns, and on the tips of the thorns, many golden berries.
- Outside of the mouse-cage, another, smaller cage, somewhat in the shape of a crown, this one composed of brazinion and gold, with a base of porcelain, and set about with suitable gemstones at its points and at select places around its brim. It appeared to be empty, and, indeed, it has no door, nor any other evident way to be opened and closed. It is reasonably well-made, though much more magic was used in its construction than most jewellers would have done — and yes, it is made with the stylings of jewelry rather than those of cage-making, if, indeed, there are particular stylings of cage-making. That is because the one who made it was trained as a jeweler, and is generally better with magic than with tools, and was in somewhat of a hurry.
From the crown-cage a voice mewled, in pale and bitter tones, “Vae, is that you?”
“The yes, Brondigance, it is me, and with me are four others.” She gave their names. Feralan had the presence of mind to courtsey nicely. The others were too perplexed or scared.
“Are you here to let me go free?” asked Brondigance.
“Not a bit so; instead I shall hold true and fast to the wish you wished twenty-six years ago, even though you seek to depart from it. Not so fickle-minded am I, though even a half a Rassimel may be inconstant!” said Vae.
“What … what did it wish for?” asked Ochirion, in a shaky little whisper.
“It — or ‘he’, you may as well call me, for once I was male — was a shifter hybrid of Rassimel and Sleeth,” said Brondigance. “I was dying, an inevitable consequence of my deformity. A sorcerer and a nendrai offered to try to save my life, without charge to me — for I was quite poor; I was excluded from all honorable professions; I made some little money in vile ways. In a moment of utter foolishness brought about by desparation, I accepted their offer. Now I am trapped in a hideous half-life, imprisoned with only a monster and her mice for company!”
“Was that sorcerer a Zi Ri named Sythyry, of Vheshrame?” asked Windigar. “Was that nendrai Vaisessasilmin?”
“Yes, and yes. You know of me?”
“We are friends and associates of Sythyry, and, of course, of Vae as well. Sythyry occasionally mentions you. Zie speaks of you as of one of the dead, though.”
The cage said, “I might as well be, as far as the world of primes is concerned! To them I vanished years ago: few would have noticed, fewer would have cared, and fewest of all thought it not for the best. But I am not quite dead; I have no such pleasure. Vae is not through with her torturing me.”
Quendry asked, “Vae? Why are you torturing Brondigance?”
Vae lashed her tail. “Not out of cruelty or malice am I torturing the Brondigance! Not in all ways am I a creature of viciousness and torment, but, when I am permitted, I am creature of generosity and kindness! The longer life wished he than his body would allow, and the longer life am I providing him!”
“Not a true life — but a miserable half-life, caged, bodiless, all but alone, and without even the ability to end it!” whined Brondigance.
“He doesn’t seem to want it though,” said Quendry.
“The now, he may not want it. The soon, he may come to be happier not-dead than dead. The hope of that is on me, anyhow, though I had more of a hope of it when I tucked him here than I do today,” said Vae.
“How much longer must I suffer here? How much longer will it be until your vicious cruelty is sated, thou wicked and lying beast?” cried Brondigance.
“The ten years or so,” said Vae sadly.
“What? You do intend to release me? But not yet?” said Brondigance. “Is this simply another one of your lies? Why not allow me to die now, rather than enduring another decade of empty years of pointless months of agonizing days of hideous hours of dreadful minutes of miserable seconds?”
“The experiment that is your current life I shall judge to have failed when I cannot apply its results to Lithia. The while she lives, the hope and prospect remains that it will succeed, and then we shall have some better choice to offer to her than to die of her own body’s reasons, or to die at the hand of a friend,” said Vae.
“Suppose you tell me the whole story,” said Windigar.
Vae did not, so I will.
When Lithia was born, I took it upon myself to see what could be done to tend to a shifter-hybrid. There is a certain body of the magical literature on the topic, though without many successes. There is also a body of speculative theoretical work. We exhausted the most successful of the tested methods, without worthwhile effect. We then turned to the speculative ones. The most promising approach seemed to be to remove the mind and spirit (which were, in principle, intact) from the body (which was definitely malformed). Rather a drastic measure, of course, but one which has occasionally been performed for other reasons with results that were not uniformly disasterous.
Of course, it is a cursed expensive enchantment to perform.
Also of course, we did not want to simply do it to Lithia at that point; she was a little girl, happy for eight-ninths of every hour, and we did not wish to rip her away from that.
So we cast about further. We found several shifter hybrids here and there, mostly victims of the same karcist who had constructed Lithia. Three of them, including Brondigance, were glad to accept offers to be our experimental subjects. We strove mightily to cure them. The results have inspired my current feelings of hopelessness and pessimism about the prospects for doing much for Lithia. (And, indeed, my opinion that the gods do not approve of shifter hybrids. Several things failed that by standard theories should have succeeded, or at least had some respectable chance of success. There are many possible reasons for their failure other than the direct wish of the gods; but eventually the cumulative weight of failure suggest the direct wish of the gods as the simplest and most reasonable common cause.)
Brondigance agreed to be the subject in the mind-preservation experiment. And by “agreed”, I mean, “begged and argued and cajoled and did everything in his power up to and including seducing a certain Sleeth-fancier who had useful influence”. At one point in the dispute about who to try to save, I was ready to toss all three of them out in the street … but Brondigance prevailed.
We put his mind and spirit into the crown.
Within a day, he was crying bitterly with the illusionary voice the crown provided. His half-existence was horrible and loathy to him. His brainless thoughts were drenched in sorrow, his bodiless spirit was soaked in futility. He still felt the itchy need to shift, but now he had no way to do so.
I persuaded him to endure for a full month, while I attempted various adjustments and modifications. There was a slight improvement in some minor details, but the fundamental issues were beyond me.
We held a farewell party for him, though he could not taste the refreshments, nor become intoxicated by the sorrow-toasts we made in his honor. The two other shifters seemed rather relieved that they had lost.
Vae offered to take him to the hills of Mrasteia, where he was born and where he best wished to die. She said she would open the cage and release him. After which, the cage was to become part of her hoard. She deserves a few mighty and valuable magic items, after all, and this one is both of those things — though worthless in any functional sense.
Instead, it seems, Vae temporized. She has not not done what she said she would do; she has simply delayed a bit. Specifically, she held to the faint hope that Brondigance would come to appreciate his state after some time. If he did so, so might Lithia, after enduring a few decades of the same purgatory in a cage of her own. So, Vae reasoned, Brondigance must be compelled to continue until there is no chance of a favorable outcome: viz. until Lithia is too close to death for a cage to save.
(And/or: at one point Brondigance begged to be allowed to live as a mind in a cage. Vae helpfully is carrying out this wish, even though Brondigance has changed his opinion of it. This is Vae’s ordinary style and curse. To this extent, Vae cannot help it; she is just being a bit more devious than usual about matters.)
She tucked him away in a safe place, and set guards around him. She gave him a mara eleni for company — a sentient tree, with the power of observing and casting spells upon anything which eats her berries. The colony of mice are conduits for the mara eleni’s power. It is companion to Brondigance, a servant of sorts, a guardian.
And a source of things to keep his mind occupied. For Vae arranged that Brondigance could scry upon anything which the mara eleni could.
I did not know this until Vae returned, and I cannot say that I am particularly pleased.
Vae lashed her tail once, sending a sheet of jagged noise tumbling through the cave. “The now, Brondigance, it is known that you and the mara eleni have been scrying and spying on primes these twenty-many years. The many things are known to you, and the few things are hidden from you. The well do I know you love watches, for you had one when you had a body; it was your most treasured possession, until you gave it as a bribe to someone to influence Sythyry to your cause. The one of these things you must now tell us: what wristwatch is the best wristwatch in the whole of the world?”
“I don’t know, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did,” said Brondigance.
“It’s not for Vae,” said Quendry. “It’s for Lithia. As a wedding present.”
“Ah, Lithia. This cage was made for her; I am just trying it out to see how well it works. In a more just world, she should be in here, not out enjoying the embraces of some fiancé. In a more just world, I should be dead, well on my way towards reincarnation as a proper Sleeth,” said Brondigance.
“Not so well do I approve of this answer,” said Vae. “The better answer you shall make for me, and soon.”
“Kill me immediately afterwards, and I will tell you all I know,” said Brondigance.
“Not a bit shall you die this decade! The wish on me is, not a bit shall you die for centuries after that — for I wish that you would be happy with such scraps of salvation as we have provided for you!”
“Cruel, cruel monster!” moaned Brondigance. “Always were you the cruel one!”
“The cruelness of mine is this: that you shall have the full measure of opportunity to live well!” hissed Vae, and stomped out of the chamber.
“Wait! Before you go, please do me one favor…” said Brondigance.
“Not shall that favor be to release you before your time!” snapped Vae from afar, and set a wall of serpents to keep Windigar away from him.
“Tell Sythyry about what has become of me — of the perfidy of zir nendrai, and the torments I endure!” cried Brondigance. The wall ate a few mice.
“I will,” said Windigar. And the children echoed him. This promise was kept adequately for me to write this journal entry.
“The now you must come with me! The now is our time to find the best watch!” snapped Vae, and extracted the crew from the cave.
“Why did you go visit him? A pickled mind in a cave isn’t the best watchmaker,” said Windigar.
“Ah, the hope was on me that he should have become reconciled to the best we could provide him, and that a wristwatch and an even better gift we could make to Lithia,” said Vae sadly. “The watch alone must suffice now.”