WRITING Götterdämmerung - An Iwaku-Inspired Story

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  1. As most of you checking this thread are probably aware, there was a big ole fundraiser in February of 2017. It raised a stupid amount of money, and one of the fun rewards offered was that I would write a novel-sized story using people of Iwaku as the basis for the characters. This is the thread that shall house that story. If you wish to talk about it with other folks reading it, to share theories or praise my magnificent writing or whatnot, please go to this thread I've set up for that purpose!

    This post will have links to each chapter (each in its own separate post), the list of characters and who they are based on, and also maybe some fun stats and notes and such if I feel like it.

    Table of Contents

    Cast List
    Ordered by Time First Named​
    Jorick - @Jorick
    Umi - @firejay1
    Tari - @Tarieles
    Moody - @The Mood is Write
    Kitti - @Kitti
    Rhea - @insouciant
    Titana - @PhantomThief715
    Jacob Cane - @JacobCane
    Lady Peregrine - @Peregrine
    Ozzie - @Astaroth
    Grumpy - @Grumpy
    Kimberlyn - @kimsim12
    Kara - @Cosmic Castaway
    Daz - @Daz
    Halaster - @Halaster
    Crystal - @CrystalTears
    Allie "Fat Al" Rendez - @fatalrendezvous
    Zuma - @Iwazuma
    Nav - @Nav
    Shizuo - @Shizuochan
    Grene Briarwood - @Greenie
    Elle Joyner - @Elle Joyner
    Kaga - @Kagayours
    Fury - @Fury
    Quinzel Herz - @HerziQuerzi
    Nue - @Nue
    Neos Rune-Eye - @Neobullseye
    Lady Snowball Shortpaw III - @Snowball
    Necropolis - @Necropolis (@Lusterless Nova opted out of using their guaranteed major role spot in the story and gave it to Necropolis)
    Rory - @Bob Ross
    Neb - @Nebulon Ranger
    Gryal - @Gryal
    Gwazi - @Gwazi Magnum
    Pahn'kaks - @Pahncakes (ayyy, got her introduced before her name changed again)
    Holm Shire - @Holmishire
    Dunru - @Dunruffle
    Hastur - @Hastur
    Raven - @Raven
    Wyllow - @Absyinthe
    Rook - @Rook
    Candy - @Hatsune Candy
    Vay - @Vay
    Razilin - @Razilin (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Sen - @Sen (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Vivian - @Vivian (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Nemo - @Nemopedia (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Jared - @jared555 (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Eru - @Eruantien (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Fico - @FieryCold (appeared as a historical figure in Extra #3)
    Asmodeus - @Asmodeus (mentioned as a historical figure in Chapter 6)
    Joan - @Joan
    Rissa - @rissa
    Apple - @Applo
    Deep One - @Turtle Knight
    Rose - @Rosedrachen
    #1 Jorick, Mar 1, 2017
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2017
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  2. Prologue - Last Words
    The crackling and snapping from the fireplace mixed with the sound of wet and wheezing breaths to fill the air with an unpleasant cacophony. It was a rather small home, built of rough stones mortared together to form a single room, and there was barely enough room for the two visitors to stand amongst the ramshackle furniture. Both faced the bed that took up a large portion of the space, a once-ornate piece that had only remnants of gold and white paint flecks on the wooden posts.

    "Only two of you, eh?" The raspy voice from the man laying in bed wasn't much better than the wheezing. He looked like a caricature of age, wizened and wrinkled with wispy white hair sprouting from only his chin and the sides of his head and out of his pointed ears. "Look how far we've fallen. Still-" The old man cut off with a strangled sound, then fell into a fit of weak coughing. One of the visitors, the woman, stepped forward as if to help, but she was waved away. The coughs took on a decidedly thick and wet tone, and finally they stopped as the man spit a glob of dark brown phlegm off to the side and onto the dirt floor, where it joined many other such spots that gave the area an oddly mottled appearance.

    The old man picked up where he left off, his voice now slightly less raspy than before. "Still, we did it. I did it. Held firm. Saw it to the end. They laughed at me, aye, they did. Called me the mad king. Bunch of ungrateful sacks of dung, if you ask me. You." He gestured to the woman with a weak wave of his hand. "I'm not gonna live to see another sunrise. Tell me my list of titles. The old ones, back when I sat on the throne. Last wish of a dying man and all that."

    She shifted her feet sheepishly and looked to the ground. "I.. never learned them, Your Grace."

    "Never learned them?" The old man wheezed and let his hand drop, trying to laugh but unable to get the proper sound out through his clogged lungs. "Aye, been some years since then. Guess your family forgot everything that went with their promise to keep the faith. So be it. At least you came when called. And you, lad?"

    The young man simply nodded his head before beginning, listing the titles off in a bored drone. "High King of the Ivory Circle, The Great Circlebinder, Lord of the Glass Throne, Wielder of the Godslayer, Bringer of the Age of Mortals, The Undying One, Conqueror of the Frozen North, Protector of Salt and Sand, Guardian of Tree and Hill, The Last Gate of Norlathel." He bowed, a shallow and mocking thing, and he finished the recitation with a sarcastic twist to his words. "All hail the mighty Jorick."

    Another burst of stuttering wheezes from the bed preceded Jorick pushing himself up to sit as fully upright as he could. "You've got an attitude. Good. You're gonna need some fire in your belly for what comes next. I figure neither of you really believe, aye?" The young man's blank stare and the woman's return to sheepish glances at the ground were answer enough. "Ah, but you're worried. Worried enough to be here, at least. You were taught the prophecies, you saw the first signs, and when the red-eyed raven perched on your doorstep you followed. You'll believe it all soon enough, I promise you that."

    Jorick struggled to turn himself in his bed until his feet popped out from under the covers to the side. They were thin and bony things, with thick yellow nails that had gone untrimmed for countless months. He stopped here, wheezing and gasping for air, and flicked fingers toward a chest standing off by itself in a corner of the room. "In there. Take a bag each. Take as many as you like. I hoped for many more, but two will have to do. And one of you bring me my staff."

    The young man made for the chest immediately, while the woman headed in the opposite direction to get the requested staff. The chest was filled with leather bags, each about the size of a large man's fist, and the dull metal clinking when the man picked one up made it rather obvious they were filled with coins, but there was also a subtler crinkling sound as well. The young man looked back toward the bed with a brow raised in silent question.

    "Copies of the prophecy." Jorick coughed and spat on the floor again, this time leaving a bright red smear in the dirt. He did not acknowledge it as he took hold of the staff the woman held out, then used it to lever himself forward and further off the side of the bed. "And coin to pay for travel and the like. It's all gold. Take the lot of it, I've no need for gold now. Just spread the word and do what you can to make the world ready for what comes. Ignorance is the greatest weakness of mortals, so you two shall be my last effort to help your kind. Two torches of knowledge to light the way forward. Go on, take the gold now, you'll need it."

    Finally, with shaking hands both grasping the wood of the staff, Jorick stood. Some of his joints popped loud enough for the visitors to hear it, and he let out a deep groan of discomfort. Even so, he did not ask for help. He took small, uncertain steps forward, heading toward the door of the small building. There were no words as he struggled to make this last small journey, only the sound of fire and labored breathing mixed with the dull clink of the man and woman emptying the chest of its fortune.

    Eventually they all made it outside. Jorick stood two steps outside the door, staring upward at the stars. The two visitors waited in silence until he spoke again, this time in a voice that seemed so thin a breeze might blow it away. "Hold out your left hands. Palm down." The two exchanged doubtful glances, but they did as asked. Perhaps the chest full of gold inside was enough to purchase their compliance, or they just wanted to humor a dying man. Jorick held out his own left hand, gnarled and withered, and twisted his fingers up into an unnatural configuration. A flash of red light burst forth and struck the offered hands of the man and woman, and they both recoiled in shock, but there was no pain or other sensation at all. When they looked at their hands, Jorick knew what they would see there: an emblem of a red-eyed raven, marks that would last until long after they died. The young man immediately started in with some kind objection, but the gnarled hand rose once more and he wisely fell silent.

    "I had to see the sky one last time." Jorick's eyes had remained upturned the entire time, though now he leaned more heavily on his staff. "They say my people become stars when they die. I've always thought it was a load of crap, but it's a comforting thought. Perhaps I'll be able to see you how you two do, how mortalkind fares in these dark days." He turned his gaze to the two still standing there in shock, and now they could clearly see the moonlight shine on his inhuman silver eyes. "You each bear my sigil now. Remember that prophecy always has layers of meaning. 'The saviors will follow the red-eyed raven's call.' Aye, that line brought you to me, but it will also bring champions to your side for the coming fight. You'll be grateful for it in time."

    Another coughing fit took the old man, and this time he sputtered out blood with each forceful exhalation. Even so, he remained standing, wavering but not yet fallen. As he looked to his visitors, his last gifts to the mortal races, he gave them a bloody smile. "Go now, spread the word and seek the signs. The Last Gate of Norlathel is falling, and there'll only be so much time to prepare after I'm gone. They've been working on me through their seal for long years, and now they've finally won their freedom. It's up to you two, and whoever you can gather to help, to put the fuckers back in their cage. But until you do, ah, chaos will reign. Run now, run fast and far and spread the truth to all who have ears to hear it." Jorick groaned and sank to one knee, and his eyes turned upward toward the starry sky once more. He shook with the force of more coughing, but he managed to gasp one last breath and speak once more in a choked whisper.

    "The dark gods are returning to Iwaku."
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  3. Chapter 1 - The Red-Eyed Ravens

    A warm breeze rolled over salty waves lapping at the white sand beach. A woman stood just out of reach of the water, hunched forward with both hands on a gnarled cane, her face a mass of wrinkles framed by wispy strands of grey hair, though an observer would likely notice little aside from her striking silver eyes. She closed her eyes and cocked her head to the side as the breeze pushed on by, not quite strong enough to move her heavy robe, but enough to get a rattle out of the variety of bracelets and bangles that adorned her right forearm. The old woman shook her head and grumbled under her breath as she turned away from the sea and walked with the aid of her cane.

    The beach was vast and empty of all other life. It curved to make a gentle bay, perfect for the use of ships, yet there were none riding anchor out in the waves, nor were there any docks thrusting out from the land to meet them. Only a single building marred what would otherwise be a pristine jewel of nature: a small hut, built of driftwood and covered on the seaward side with a crust of salt carried on the wind. The old woman was not at all bothered by the solitude, for she had long ago grown tired of the noise and blather and irritation that seemed a natural byproduct of mortals being mortals. The age of the immortals had passed by, and most of their kind had willingly left civilization to the hands of those who would cherish it with all the love their fleeting hearts could muster. Some still sought the old ones for help or guidance, but few ever found themselves in dire enough need to seek out the Witch of the Water.

    Umi pushed through the cloth that served as a door to her hut and was greeted by the usual acidic and herbal smell of various potions and concoctions in differing stages of production and their ingredients hanging from strings from the ceiling or laid on any available flat surface. She made her way through the tables holding glassware and the cauldrons hanging in midair, all the bubbling and boiling liquids seemingly doing so of their own volition with not a flame in sight, stirring one here and adding a pinch of powder there. Eventually she made it to the far side of the room, to the one bare surface in the room: a white stone pillar, marked through with veins of gold, that was a couple feet wide and rose up just past her waist. The simple cylinder of stone had sat there for countless years, unused and best forgotten, but now the time had come.

    “Damned fool,” Umi muttered to herself as she gathered supplies from near the pillar. “Couldn't've stayed alive for a few more weeks, could he. Never could make anything simple or easy, no, not him. Always did like making me rush about cleaning up his messes. Infuriating man.” With a heavy sigh, Umi pulled the lid off a glass jar filled with black liquid, ignoring the potent sulfurous smell, and dipped a finger inside. She swiped it along the surface of the pillar with quick and practiced motions, dipping the finger back into the liquid as needed. First came the circle, then a star inside it, and then five smaller circles right where each point met the main circle. As she finished the shape, the black smears shimmered with an eerie green light, and the horrid smell grew much stronger.

    “Blood of gods, hold this seal.” Umi waved her hand over the pillar and the light and smell vanished. She never enjoyed working with reagents harvested from the corpses of gods, for it always meant something terrible and inconvenient was afoot, but at least it usually behaved well when commanded, if one knew the proper magic of course. She sealed the jar of old blood and put it away, then gathered the remaining items for the ritual. “Essence of magic.” Umi set a small, white crystal into one of the small circles. It was a condensed form of magic itself, power forced into a physical shape; it had taken years to make it, one hour per day of careful work, and if it were to become unstable the resulting explosion would wipe away her hut, the beach, and anything else that was unfortunate enough to be within a few miles. The small circle of blood flashed green, and an almost invisible dome sprang up to contain the crystal. That would be enough to do more than slightly dampen the blast if it happened, but Umi was confident enough in her work that she had no worries about it.

    “Bounty of nature.” Next came a pearl, almost the size of her closed fist and perfectly spherical. It was a beautiful specimen, one of the greatest treasures Umi had ever owned, but she had nothing else that would fulfill the needs of the ritual, sadly. She placed it in another of the circles, and again the green flash of light was followed by a dome of magical force springing up around it. “Flesh of ancients.” She'd hoped to be able to make a trip to carve a chunk off of Jorick before he died to fulfill this part of the ritual, but alas, he hadn't lasted as long as she hoped. Umi grumbled some more under her breath and picked up and ornate bronze dagger. She moved over to a nearby table, placed her left hand on it palm up, and quickly stabbed the dagger down through the base of her smallest finger. Her only reaction was a slight grunt of pain, and soon enough her severed finger was sitting in a third of the small circles, covered with its own special protective dome.

    The wound was already healing by itself as Umi prepared for the last part of the ritual she could perform for the moment. The flow of blood had already stopped, and the bone was slowly growing outward; it would take perhaps an hour for the finger to be restored, much longer than it would normally take if she was not funneling massive amounts of magic into this damnable ritual. She waved her uninjured hand over the pillar again. “Blood of gods, hold this seal and await the final offerings. Might of monster and heart of hero you shall have in due time.” This time the entire array drawn in blood flashed a brighter green, and a protective dome appeared over the whole of the pillar; it sliced through a cloth sack nearby, spilling dried kernels of corn on the floor, but a second flash of light came and all that which had been on the inside of the dome was reduced to a couple bits of ash on the floor.

    “Damned Jorick.” Umi took a deep breath, steadying herself with her cane. These old rituals were always draining, always required massive gluts of power to function. She'd heard of some mortal wizards attempting a simpler one ages ago, a circle of seven of them trying to use such a ritual to turn wheat into gold, and they'd been found as shriveled husks when someone went to check on the screaming. She'd be fine after some sleep, but there was still more to do. “Cursed man, couldn't have held on just four more weeks. Ruining my plans as usual. Bah.” Umi took a couple shaking steps over to one of her tables and took a vial from a small stand that held a dozen of them, all filled with liquids of different colors. She squinted at it, then sniffed it, then nodded and drank the contents. For a moment if felt like her body had shattered into a thousand pieces, but that fragmentation was only in her mind. She imbued those fragments with little commands and droplets of magic to make it work, and sent each one zooming out to find their designated targets. It was a disorienting ordeal, and once she was done she quickly staggered to the pile of pillows and blankets that served as her bed and collapsed atop it.

    “There, you old bastard.” Umi tossed her cane aside and curled up in her nest of soft fabrics, hearing her joints pop and creak with each movements. “I keep my promises, even to dead folk. Now go away and let me sleep. I'll finish it when the other pieces get here.”

    A warm wind blew across Umi's face once more, suddenly and with no natural source. She snorted a laugh and closed her eyes, and she felt the presence leave as requested. As she drifted off to sleep she idly wondered where the god would be off to next, and what other schemes he had in the works. The great nemeses were returning, so she was sure her own efforts could not be the only plan in motion. She only hoped that he and his fellow remaining gods had done enough to prepare for the return of darkness, lest the light be taken from the world once and for all.

    The history of Iwaku is, frankly, a convoluted mess. Tari frowned down at her written sentence for a long moment, then shrugged and continued onward, quill scratching along the paper to fill the silence of her study. One could spend a lifetime reading through strange tidbits of history, for legend and lore alike, that all come together to paint a confusing mess rather than a clear picture. The Age of Gods, The Age of Immortals, and The Age of Mortals. It sounds so clear when listed, but I doubt even the Immortals could give a clear explanation of how we got from the first to the last. This will be my attempt to put those pieces together.

    Tari set her quill down and leaned back in her chair to look out of the small window set high in the wall, scratching idly at the scales on her neck. A few nights ago there had been a strange light at the top of the mountain, and she could just barely see the snow-capped peak in the distance. Nothing had come of the light, or at least nothing yet, but Tari was still worried. She'd spent a couple days reading through books and harassing locals in the town of Eles to see if this was something that had happened before, but it was of no use. Eventually she decided that if there was some mysterious and foreboding nonsense afoot, she might as well finally get down to writing her comprehensive history of the world before it ended and there was nothing left to write about. Melodrama aside, that had been a longstanding goal and dream for her, and now she was finally motivated to get the damned thing done.

    For a moment Tari thought she saw something flying around the peak of the mountain, something that looked about the size of a bird but which would have to be absolutely massive given the scale, but then it was gone. She stood and got a better look out the window, and then she saw it more clearly, farther down than the peak and getting larger. Her claws gripped the windowsill as she watched it grow and grow, large enough to make out the flapping wings, then enough to see it was much larger than a house, and it kept on coming closer and growing in size. It swooped over a distant airship, likely one of the military vessels heading to the fort on the edge of the forest, and though it made no contact the ship was battered about like it was floating the high seas in a storm. It tipped, ever so slowly, and Tari could see sparks shooting from one of the enchanted orbs that held it aloft. The airship turns on its side and drifted toward the ground, battered by just the wind of the passing creature, but she paid the doomed vessel little attention. The giant winged lizard, a creature that even a fool would know as a dragon, was large enough to block out most of the sky well before it passed overhead. Though it was far overhead, the passage of the massive creature made the walls and windows shake, and a black bird cawed and leaped out of a nearby tree to fly away in the direction from whence the dragon had come. The thud of things, probably books, hitting the ground in the study was not enough to mask a sharp crack from elsewhere in the house. Onward the dragon flew, up and out of her field of view from the window, never seeming to even take notice of the town below.

    Tari simply stood there and stared at the sky for a long few seconds, trying to figure out just how massive that thing had been and comparing it to bits of dragon lore she'd accumulated over the years, but even quick calculations in her head made it clear this thing was larger than any dragon she'd ever read of, and the largest of those had been able to swallow a dozen men whole in one go. Another sharp cracking sound from elsewhere drew her away from the window and her mounting dread. She made her way through the heaping piles of books that littered her study, some now toppled over onto the clear paths through the clutter, but Tari navigated through them without any trouble. She'd always been on the spry and nimble side for a Lizardwoman, even with a life of scholarly pursuits rather than a more active lifestyle, and so she barely even needed to rely on her tail for balance as she hopped her way through the room to the door. As soon as it was open she could hear muttering coming from down the hall.

    She found Moody standing a window in the kitchen, body tense as she stared out the window above the dish washing basin at the receding form of the dragon flying away. It looked to be already flying over the ocean in the distance, and Tari noted that it seemed not to have turned at all. She made a mental note to grab a map later and figure out where it might be heading if it kept on in a straight line; she had some ideas, and none of them were good in the least. There were two shattered plates on the floor: one that seemed to have fallen from a shelf, and the other right at Moody's feet. Tari hurried over to the elven woman, heedless of the ceramic shards that failed to punch through the thick soles of her feet, and put her arm around the shorter woman's shoulder. It hadn't been obvious from afar, but Tari could immediately feel thick, black ink seeping into the arm of her brown robe; Moody was one of a very rare breed of elves, known as ink elves for the fact that they secreted ink when distressed. Moody's ink came from her scalp, and now standing beside her Tari could see it running in thin lines down her face like onyx tears.

    “We're alright now. We're safe. It's going away.” Tari hugged Moody close against her as she spoke, voice low and soothing. She felt the elven woman relax and put an arm around her waist in return. Tari reached up to run her claws through the ink-soaked hair, not bothered in the least by the fluid already speckling her green scales, lightly scratching the scalp the way she always did when Moody was agitated.

    “Good.” Moody sounded unsure, but she made a good show of hiding it. “Where did that thing come from? It's so...” She reached up and gestured vaguely with her hands, fingers wiggling a bit as she sought the proper word. “Big.” Moody sighed, apparently irritated with the simple word she'd ended up with.

    “Big.” Tari nodded as she voiced her agreement. “I wish I knew. Honestly I'm just glad it left. That thing could have crushed half the town flat just by landing. I saw it knock an airship out of the sky just by flying above it.”

    “Fuck me, that's crazy.” Even if Moody's voiced hadn't been full of shock and awe, her wide eyes would have conveyed the message just fine. A trickle of ink had gotten into her right eye and tinted the white part to a dark grey, but she didn't seem to notice or mind. She did, however, wince as she shifted her feet; she looked down and let out an annoyed huff. “I didn't even realize I dropped the plate. I was just staring at the thing, and...”

    Tari chuckled and nodded. “I damn near wet myself when I saw it flying toward us. Come on, let's get your feet patched up. I'll clean this up, and then I have some research to do. After you're cleaned up you could go see if anyone else around town was hurt and needs some help, if you want.”

    That seemed to cheer Moody up, and as Tari picked her up and carried her through the kitchen, then out into the sitting room where she worked on bandaging the cuts on her feet, Moody chattered away about a conversation she'd had with one of the townsfolk the other day. She'd always been closer to the people of Eles since they'd moved out here years ago, out to what had then been the farthest reach of land claimed by the Ivory Circle. While Moody went out and made friends and ran errands, Tari mostly remained in their little home busily reading and researching. She was sure the townsfolk must have thought her some kind of strange recluse and Moody her servant; the first bit was true enough, but Moody was not at all a servant. They were more like family, after their long years as friends, than a master and servant.

    A little while later Tari watched Moody hurrying off down the worn dirt path that connected their little parcel of land to the town of Eles just visible through the clumps of trees in between. The elf had regained her usual pep and vigor already, the massive dragon not forgotten but the fear put behind her as she focused instead on making sure others were okay. Tari envied her. She put a brave face on, just enough to not worry Moody, but the whole time she'd felt the gnawing of terror and worry in her gut. As the elf disappeared from view among the trees, Tari let the mask fall away and headed back inside. Wherever that dragon had come from, wherever it was heading, it could not mean good news. She headed back to her study, intent on finding a map. And then, once she'd figured out where that massive beast was headed, she knew where to look next, to the book she kept hidden in a locked case under her bed: a book of prophecy that claimed to foretell the coming of the end of the world.

    The Ivory Promenade was filled with people as far as the eye could see, from the Glass Spire all the way to the gates of the city. Tall buildings pierced the sky on either side of the Promenade, each with threads of light running up their sides that marked the magical supports that allowed them to build the white stone towers so high. The bright blue slice of sky visible between those buildings was frequently marred with the bulky hulls of airships flying overhead, all of them giving off the typical glow and deep humming noise of the flight crystals that held them aloft. The people of Gencha, the grand capital city of the Ivory Circle, had turned out in droves to hear the speech. Kitti stood up on the dais just in front of the Spire, waiting for the sun to reach its zenith before she began. She'd never addressed the masses like this before, and while she was nervous that was mostly an undercurrent to the excitement racing through her. Normally it would have been one of the Hands addressing the people of Gencha, or perhaps the Lady herself, but not today. Today only she would speak, just another human woman who held no special title or performed any useful function in the city. Many of the most important people of Gencha were arrayed behind her on the dais, in fact, but only to lend the weight of authority to her words.

    Rhea, the Hand of Justice of Gencha, stood tall and proud with her hands resting on the pommels of her two swords hanging from her belt, standing as representation for the army and the city guard both. Without those weapons the Eladrin woman would have looked little more than another variety of elf, one touched with a divine bloodline, but Kitti knew the woman was almost unparalleled in the use of a sword, and they weren't even her most deadly weapons; it was said that the Hand of Justice could kill a guilty man just by looking at him, and that bit of rumor wasn't far off. Titana, the Hand of Ships, sat in one of the chairs dressed in full naval general regalia; it was a ruse, of course, as the elf woman was truly the spymaster of the realm, but that was a jealously guarded secret. Jacob Cane, the Hand of Coin, was lounging in a chair near Titana and chatting with her about something or other, though the woman seemed uninterested in him as her attention was turned toward the center of the seats; Jacob was just a simple human, but he dressed in finely made clothing that would let even the most ignorant fool know he was powerful and wealthy. The object of the most attention, however, was Lady Peregrine sitting in the central seat.

    Lady Peregrine was in fact the bearer of several loftier titles, including High Queen of the Ivory Circle, but she retained the lesser title and demanded that it be used whenever the more ostentatious titles were not absolutely necessary. As it turned out, those titles were only deemed absolutely necessary when speaking with other rulers or when she wished to intimidate someone, and the people loved her for her supposed humility. Kitti wasn't sure if it was a calculating ploy to gain that love or something else, but she doubted it stemmed from humility; she'd known the Lady for many years, and never once had the woman been anything less than proud and assured of herself. Lady Peregrine, and of course one must never presume to address her as anything less formal than that, was an Avian woman who had risen to power through sheer force of will. In appearance she was just a human woman with sharp features and a pair of dark purple wings sprouting from her back, but anyone who spent much time at all talking to her quickly realized she was not any average person. She had a drive and a focus that gave her a strength of purpose that few could over hope to match... and she had plucked Kitti out of obscurity for this very moment. The Lady had known the prophecy and had figured enough of it out to find her, and so for nearly five years Kitti had been the Lady's companion and assistant, taken from a simple and tiresome life and brought to work with the greatest people of this era. For this reason alone Kitti would have gladly helped, but she truly believed in Lady Peregrine's vision for the world, so she was pleased on a very personal level to see this all coming to fruition today.

    The sun was finally reaching the highest point in the sky. Kitti ran through her speech in her mind once more, waiting for the fist-sized green crystal before her to light up as her signal to begin. It was keyed to the sun itself, primed to activate when it was directly overhead. That crystal would take in the sound of her voice and even a reflection of her image, a new trick never before used on such a large scale, and would send it out to linked and matching crystals all throughout the city. They were placed on two foot high poles all down the Promenade and had been distributed to all inns, taverns, and other reputable gathering places to let them all watch Kitti's speech from afar. There was talk of figuring out how to use these crystals for everything from communicating from opposite ends of the world to actually sending people to distant locations in an instant, but what they could already do was impressive enough. Just five years ago they hadn't been stable enough to be used throughout the city like this, and speeches to large crowds needed wind mages to help make the voices carry far and wide, but now there were plans to permanently place the crystals all around the city for this purpose.

    A tiny spark of light appeared in the middle of the master crystal attached to the podium in front of Kitti, then spread out to give the whole thing a strange glow. She took in a deep breath through her nose, then let it out slowly through her mouth, calming her errant nerves before launching into the speech. “People of Gencha!” Those near the dais looked up to her, but those farther back all turned to face the nearest crystals, forming rings around each of them. “My name is Kitti. You don't know me, but I am one of you. I was born in the outer ring of the city, but I stand here because Lady Peregrine wanted me to speak to all of you as your equal.” Cheers broke out through the crowd, likely more at the mention of their leader's name than anything else, but it was an encouraging sign.

    “There has been a lot of fearful whispering in the past two weeks. I'm sure you've all heard it: mutters of prophecy and fear of the future. I speak to you all today to tell you the truth of this matter. There is a prophecy, and I will share it, the true version, with all of you today. I spoke with Jorick, the Great Circlebinder who forged the warring kingdoms of old into the Ivory Circle we know today! He united the kingdoms that rimmed the Crown of the Gods, the great sea that was once a field of naval battle but which now links us all together in harmony. I spoke with him on his deathbed, and his last wish was for me to spread the truth to all who would hear it. Lady Peregrine was gracious enough to let me fulfill that dying Immortal's wish with her blessing.” Again, cheering and applauding, as expected. Kitti waited for a solid half a minute for it to die down. “This is the prophecy that he wished you all to hear.” She cleared her throat and recited it from memory with ease; for all that her family had apparently forgotten of their pledge to Jorick, the prophecy had been passed down with an almost religious devotion to her and her siblings. She spoke the familiar words in the style she had learned them, with grave seriousness and weighty intonation.

    Twelve gates were built to seal the adversaries away in darkness
    Upon the peak of Norlathel, Father Mountain, the pact was made
    Twelve Immortals bound their lives and twelve gods wept in grief
    But evil never sleeps, and the gates were ever doomed to fail

    The gates shall gasp thrice to warn of the horror they shall release
    The void shall take form within the crown and silence shall kill
    Three great beasts shall slay themselves with hubris and folly
    Reason shall shun truth and tear the watcher from the tower

    The final gate will speak the final warning and so shall chaos reign
    The saviors will follow the red-eyed raven's call
    The fool, the monster, the villain, and the beast will rise and fall
    And the fate of the world will follow in their wake

    The adversaries will take form, stolen or borrowed or made
    And the guardians will lack the power to stop their advance
    The offspring are torn and divided but still strike fear in cold hearts
    But the children must bear the burdens of their forebears in this war

    Three visions more foretell the rise of the shadows of old
    Destruction incarnate rains fury upon the treasure of the ages
    The mountain meets the sea and stands tall, but the sea swallows it whole
    Two corrupt seeds sprout dark vines that attempt to choke the sky

    Hope lies in the last gift, the gift of blood and sacrifice and pain
    Seek the mother of the first to find the grave of the last
    The last gift must be forged anew into a key to sever the source
    Bone of gods and blood of offspring and knowledge of children combined

    Let not an evil heart bear the key lest the Age of Shadows rule forever
    Let not a good heart bear the key lest the Age of Nothing swallow all
    The lock must open to one pure of cause and free of doubts
    For only then shall the twilight of the gods pass in peace and glory.

    There was no cheering for the conclusion of the prophecy. Kitti saw worry and fear on the faces of those looking up to her. That was to be expected. The names of the ages held a deep power within the minds of the masses, as if they were words written in stone that dictated the course of the future. Moving away from the Age of Mortals would mean they, the people who now dominated Iwaku, would no longer be ascendant. Kitti let them stew in their fear for a stretch of silence. She knew they had to be picturing what the world would be like if ruled by shadows, or more likely monsters that called the shadows their home, and grasping at the existential dread of nothingness taking over.

    “However,” the people looked up to her with hope in their eyes and she was glad to give them what they needed, “I am here today to tell you that none of this is true.” She expected shouts of disbelief, but the people remained mostly silent, with an undercurrent of chatter just audible to her. That was fine, that just meant they were hanging on her every word. “Remember your history, friends. That prophecy was spoken by an old woman as she laid dying, and the mind is easily clouded with fear. Jorick, the old High King, grew obsessed with that fear. Look to the great books of history: was there ever any mention of fearsome adversaries locked away before Jorick heard that prophecy? Did he not claim the title of The Last Gate of Norlathel only after he heard the prophecy? He claimed that the null storms, the magic-devouring spots that rove the Crown of the Gods fulfilled the first of the three warning signs; that one is a good match, truly. However, the three beasts never appeared and never slew themselves; he cast the Northern Uprising, the three clan leaders who balked against the rule of the Ivory Circle and died in battle, as those three beasts, but they were men, not beasts at all, and they were killed by others, not hubris and folly. Even he had no answer when asked how the third sign had manifested, but he claimed that it must have because he could feel it in his bones. Ask those who lived in those days what it was like, how Gencha was turned into a city of fear and terror as the Fallen King Jorick tried to prepare for an imaginary war. He forged the Ivory Circle, yes, but he also nearly tore it asunder as madness took him. He was banished for the good of the people, and though it saddens me to say this, he died still crazed and still believing in this foolish prophecy.”

    The crowd was positively buzzing with talk now, but Kitti continued on. Her own words would not be enough to convince the most superstitious of them people, of course, but there was one name that could make them see past their fears. “Lady Peregrine asked me to speak to you all to reassure you of the truth!” The chattering didn't die down, but Kitti pressed on nonetheless. “It shames me deeply to admit this, but I came from one of the bloodlines that swore to remain loyal to the Fallen King. Lady Peregrine saw in me the hope for redemption, and today I truly free myself and my family of his taint of madness. Prophecy is nothing more than vague nonsense meant to make people afraid. Once the common man cowered in fear from magic as a whole, from the awesome forces that Immortals bent to their will, but now look around you! We have harnessed those same forces and done with them things neither the gods nor the Immortals ever dreamed of. We built Gencha into a marvel of magic and ingenuity, we created the skyships that rule the sky, and we will be the authors of our own destinies. We know magic is nothing to fear, that once light is shone upon the mysteries all the darkness flees and leaves behind only power for the taking of those brave and clever enough to grasp it. Prophecy is no different; tell me a prophecy and I can tell you a dozen ways it was already fulfilled. It's nothing more than a parlor trick, a superstition given the weight of tradition for no good reason. We are better than that.”

    Some shouting had started up as she spoke, and as Kitti paused she saw some people in a distant circle round a crystal trying to break up a fight. A few people near the front of the crowd were trying to push their way forward, and for a moment Kitti was worried they were going to rush the dais and attack her, but they met an invisible wall that held them back. She looked around in confusion and saw that Lady Peregrine had a finger raised with a faint glow emanating from the tip. The Lady met her eyes and simply cocked one eyebrow upward, an expression that Kitti read loud and clear. She turned back to the crystal and spoke louder to be heard over the shouting.

    “People of Gencha, have no fear! Lady Peregrine will guide us into a new era. The Age of Mortals was ours due to sheer numbers. We have come to dominate the land of Iwaku, but there is room yet to grow. Numbers alone will no longer suffice to keep our place in the world. We must become better, and we must cast off the heavy shackles of the past. Those of you who cannot bear the thought, heed your eyes!” Kitti lifted her left hand to the crystal, making sure the sigil Jorick had placed there would be eminently visible to the visual projections from the linked crystals. “'The saviors will follow the red-eyed raven's call.' I bear this mark, the red-eyed raven, and I make this call to you, the saviors of your own futures. Join me and follow Lady Peregrine as she guides us into an age where neither god nor Immortal holds sway over our people. Cast off your fear and superstition, let no so-called prophecy lay you low, and embrace the spirit of rationality and progress that has made Gencha what is is today. Join us as we work to create the Age of Enlightenment!”

    The roar of noise that followed was nearly deafening. Cheers made up the most part, but she could hear anger as well. One of the angry people, a burly man who was red in the face and pounding on the Lady's magical barrier with meaty fists, was dragged back and down into the crowd. Those surrounding him seemed determined to subdue him, and Kitti feared that meant he would be left bloody and unmoving on the fine white stone of the Promenade. She could see others disappearing in similar fashion, always the angry ones being taken down by those who cheered for Lady Peregrine's vision of the future. It made Kitti's stomach turn, but the Lady had told her this might happen, and that such a purge was unfortunately better to get out of the way now than to leave it for later; waiting later would mean whole families slaughtered in the night by roving mobs, but this would mean only a few dozen individuals lost to sate the fervor of the crowd. It was awful, yes, but less awful than the alternative.

    Kitti bowed her head and turned away from the podium, trying to keep from vomiting as she walked away from the violently ecstatic crowd. She saw the Lady, sitting there and holding the barrier, looking up at the sky rather than watching the people. Kitti figured she was also disgusted by the sight, but she did not let any of it show. That reassured Kitti quite a bit, and she held firm to her conviction as she walked away. No matter what happened, she knew this was the right thing to do, and she would see it to the end.

    The sun was high in the sky, almost directly overhead, shining bright through the smoke hole at the center of the small building's conical roof and rendering the fire in the center of the room pointless for the moment. It did however make for some added drama to what was already a tense meeting. Ozzie sat on a round slice of log near to the fire and held his left hand out over it, letting the sunlight shine on the red-eyed raven sigil that now marked his flesh. The clan elders had been staring at it for what felt like ages, but Ozzie knew that was just his impatience speaking. They had already heard the tale and they had no need of being told the words of the prophecy, so now they were apparently working to figure out how to deal with their beloved prophecy saying the younger man before them was now in charge.

    He'd tried to talk to the woman, Kitti, about how to spread the word after the old one had died. She hadn't seemed interested and went on her way without saying more than a handful of words to him. That had been enough for her to name Gencha as her destination though, and that was truly all he'd needed to know. She was taking care of the greatest city of the Ivory Circle, so Ozzie had decided to make his way home immediately to the land called the Northern Wastes. The name was foolish, pejorative even, a label given to it by the Conqueror, Jorick the Undying who had brought war to the clans of the frozen north and brought the ten clans to heel. Seeing that man shriveled and wasted away had been good on the one hand, like seeing a great enemy of his people fallen to ruin, but on the other hand he could not help but be saddened by the sight. For all the ill that had been done to the northern clans, they all respected strength and could not deny the strength of the Conqueror. Had he been some fool who sat on horseback watching his armies do all the work then the clans would have no respect for the Immortal who had defeated them, but he had given them all a chance to send a fighter of their choice against him in battle. He had slain them all, and now there were drinking songs and fireside tales about the bloody day when the Conqueror slew the ten greatest warriors of the north, one after the other. The clans had heeded his warning years ago when he sent word that darkness was coming and they needed to prepare for it. Ozzie couldn't help but be amused at the irony in the fact that the fiercest opposition to Jorick's work to form his Ivory Circle had become the fiercest keepers of his legacy.

    “Very well.” The man across the fire finally spoke, pulling Ozzie from his thoughts. He was called Grumpy, and nobody ever needed to ask how he got the nickname. The man was a hulking monster of a human, dwarfing Ozzie even though they were sitting on an equal level, very easily clearing 6 feet tall when standing. Grumpy was the leader of the Kangaroo Clan, and he had earned enough respect from the others to be chosen to speak for the lot of them. The Bear Clan and Hydra Clan had both bowed to him as their leader, in fact, and it had been generations since anyone had managed to win the allegiance of another clan. It was a commonly held belief here and elsewhere in the world that the only reason the clans of the north didn't rule the world was because they were too busy fighting each other to get around to bother with other parts of the world, so Ozzie found it strange that this potential unifier had been left alive for so long by the other leaders of the Ivory Circle. Just his presence alone ought to have been enough for others on the council of rulers to want him removed.

    “You've got the mark, so we'll heed your call.” Grumpy did not look pleased in the slightest by this admission, and he lifted a finger and pointed across the fire straight to Ozzie's face. “But we know what you are, you little shit. We'll heed the call, aye, but only for needful things, only to see the prophecy through to the end. Not a man, woman, or child of the clans will jump to your orders without looking to us first. You get back to your old ways and this time we'll string you by your neck as we should've done years ago. Got that, boy?”

    Ozzie couldn't keep control of his face, and he could feel his expression sliding into an ugly snarl. Of course this savage of a man would bring up the past, and get it wrong as well. “You know nothing, you ignorant bastard.” He took in a deep breath through his nose, trying to keep his tenuous hold on his temper. “That was fourteen years ago. A lot changes in fourteen years. I've seen the world beyond the ice and tundra you've never left. I'm a different person.” A worm of a thought crept into his mind: are you trying to convince him, or yourself? Ozzie hated that little voice in his mind, but there was no shaking it, no matter what he did to shut it up.

    Grumpy snorted a laugh, a sound of derision rather than good humor. “Aye, a different person. I'm sure that'll warm the graves of them two girls.” The large man stopped and watched him, likely waiting to see his reaction. When Ozzie simply clenched his fists around the cloth at the knees of his pants, Grumpy nodded and spoke on. “That was you back then too, I hear. Old leader of the Rabbit Clan died four years back, but his son here,” he gestured to a dwarven man standing nearby, “told me all about it. They were friends of his, and you killed 'em. You couldn't say one word in your own defense, just sat there in angry silence. But you got lucky and nobody saw you do it, so you only got banished. Don't go thinking you can pull the same trick twice. There'll be eyes on you day and night, though you won't see 'em. We'll heed the prophecy, true enough, but only until we can be rid of you once and for all. Just call when you need us.”

    Ozzie seethed in silence, saying nothing. It was words that got him in trouble fourteen years ago, and he wasn't about to repeat that mistake. He couldn't trust himself not to say some of the damning words that would kill the lot of them. Grumpy laughed at him, another cruel sound, and the clan leaders all followed his lead when he rose and left the hut. They left Ozzie alone with his thoughts, and they were dark thoughts indeed. He knew he could be rid of that arrogant shitbag with just a word, and anyone else who dared stand in his way... but using his power would just be proving them right, in the end. He'd answered the summons of the red-eyed raven in the hopes of regaining a place amongst his people, but things were not going the way he'd hoped. They weren't bowing before him as he expected, and he didn't dare explain what had happened lest they kill him on the spot for being too big a threat to leave alive. All he could do was hope his leadership in the chaos to come would be enough to get them to trust him, and then he could try to explain the horror from fourteen years ago.

    But that would take time. For now Ozzie was left alone in a hut that was growing cold as the fire died down. Alone with his thoughts of two girls he had cursed to die in a fit of anger. Alone with the memory of the pain and sadness on their faces. Alone with the knowledge that no matter what he did, no matter the prophecy and the judgment of his people, he was a monster who deserved nothing more than a quick death.


    Kimberlyn blinked and looked toward the speaker. Kara, or Cosmic Kara as she liked to be called, was pointing up to the night sky. She followed the pointing finger as best she could, finding it hard to see the tiefling's dark skin with the low illumination of the fire behind them, but nothing stood out to her. “Yeah? What is it?”

    “New star, I think. Never seen that one. Look, just there under the ones that make a sort of circle. All bright and twinkly.”

    She looked for the circle first, found it after a solid minute of squinting at the sky, and then found the bright star Kara had found. “Oh.” Kimberlyn scratched idly at the scaly tip of her pointed ear, staring at the star and trying to figure out what made it new. It looked pretty much the same as all the others to her. “That's.. nice, I guess? Dunno why we'd need a new one though. There's already hundreds.”

    “They're pretty.” Kara shrugged a shoulder. “Good enough reason for me. They don't need a reason though, they're just-”

    The sound of a clearing throat, loud and persistent, cut off the idle chatter. Kimberlyn turned back around to face the fire, though her eyes went beyond it to the shadows where the group's leader lurked. Kara turned back to the fire as well, and others gathered round close. They were a varied lot, which was to be expected of a group of outcasts and bandits she supposed. Kimberlyn knew she was probably one of the oddest looking ones of the bunch though; she was a Dracari, and elf with dragon ancestry in her past, which really just meant she was an elf with scales and that was just not normal in any social circle. Halaster, another tiefling, leaned in close enough to the fire that Kimberlyn worried he would burn himself. Daz, who styled himself Razzle Dazzle for the way his magic looked like sparkles and fireworks, was a stocky dwarf who always seemed to fill up far more space than his body warranted, and he was doing so now on the opposite side of the fire from Halaster by sitting with his shoulders wide and his chest puffed out. Kimberlyn was constantly amused by her companions, and she was starting to think of them almost like a family. She figured she probably wasn't alone in that, either. They'd all been brought together, the castoffs of decent society, to make their way together in a world that didn't want them.

    “By now you've all heard about the craziness in Gencha.” The voice from the shadows was smooth and confident, a rich baritone that reminded Kimberlyn of old memories of her father. Crystal, the leader of this group of misfits, was always able to grab attention with his voice whenever he wanted it. “Maybe you heard the prophecy, or some telling of it. I don't buy it, really, but a lot of the people in the city do. A lot of them don't. You know what happens when you get people who believe one thing with all their heart and put them next to folks who fervently believe they're damned wrong?” There was a dramatic pause, silently asking the listeners to come up with their own answer. Death was Kimberlyn's thought, and she was not far off. “War. Maybe small scale since it's all in the city, but it'll be a war anyway, mark my words.”

    The pronouncement didn't sit well with most of the folks around the fire. War was a bad thing, everyone knew that. Kimberlyn stayed quiet and waited. This was how Crystal liked to introduce his crazier ideas: set everyone talking and worrying up a storm, then come in with an explanation of a clear path through the confusion. He didn't mean any harm in manipulating them, she was sure of that much. She figured he just liked being dramatic, and she had to admit that he was good at it. Rather than joining in the babbling this time, Kimberlyn sat quietly, running her fingernails over the fine red scales on her calves as she waited for the noise to reach the peak point where Crystal always spoke up again. Knowing that much of the future was quite comforting, and she felt more at home sitting here amongst these arguing folks than she ever had in Gencha.

    “Please, everyone, calm down.” Crystal did not disappoint in cutting in at just the right moment, and it brought a small smile to Kimberlyn's face. “There's no need to panic. This is a good thing for us, in fact.” Confusion clashed with the rising panic to leave the others round the fire reeling and unsure what to think. Their fearless leader filled that void. “While the people of Gencha fight amongst themselves, we can slip in and take anything not bolted down. How many times have we talked about what we'd grab if we could, huh? Now's the best chance we'll ever have. I know how people think, and I can guarantee you that tomorrow there'll be a huge fight somewhere near the center of the city, and most of the guards will have to go running off to deal with it. That's our time to strike. We could even hit one of the guard armories and take their tech. You've seen the gear those guys carry around. We could make much better use of it, I think. You lot of up for it?”

    The chattering only got louder after that, as people argued with each other about what to do, but Kimberlyn knew how it would go: the same way it always went. The way Crystal wanted it to go. That was fine by her. The thing that had been a huge worry on everyone's minds lately was their lack of enough gear to defend themselves from less kind groups wandering the wilderness they usually called home, bandits and thieves who would attack anyone who seemed weaker than them. If they could raid an armory of the Gencha guards, that would make them easily the best equipped group of vagabonds to be found anywhere in Iwaku. Who would dare attack a group carrying swords that could cut a man in half from thirty paces away, or crossbows that fired lightning, or those little sticks that shot fireballs the size of cows?

    “Um.” Kimberlyn cleared her throat and tried again. “Uh, I think...” She usually never spoke up during these sorts of discussions, and apparently others had noticed it as well; a few of them looked at her in surprise and fell silent. She was the newest member of Crystal's little group, and she hadn't felt comfortable taking part in their decisions. Tonight, however, she figured it was her turn to contribute something. “I think we should do it. We can be totally safe about it. We go into the city early like we want to visit a tavern, wait for the guards to run off, and then strike from the shadows. Quick and safe and simple, get the stuff and get out before anyone can raise alarms. It's worth the risk.”

    “That's the spirit!” Crystal gestured grandly toward Kimberlyn, his arm and the ragged sleeve of his green tunic now visible in the firelight. “Our newest friend sees my plan clearly. What say you all? Shall we relieve the tyrants of Gencha of some of their tools to better our lives?” There was a little more talk, but they were already sold on the idea. Kara slapped Kimberlyn on the back and gave her a wide grin, and Daz shot some congratulatory sparkles into the air above her head. She grew a little red in the face at the attention, but it was a pleasant sort of embarrassment.

    After giving them all a bit of time to reach the expected conclusion, Crystal clapped his hands to catch their attention once more. “Then it's settled! Tomorrow morning we head into Gencha. I had a good feeling about this idea, truly, like something greater was guiding me to it. All the talk of prophecy has gotten to me, I think. I feel like we're meant to do something grand, and this is just the start of it. Well..” Crystal leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, and his grinning face came into clear view in the firelight. He was a Kitsune, with fox ears poking up through his shaggy brown hair and a matching tail somewhere back there in the darkness that Kimberlyn wagered was probably whipping to and fro in excitement right now. Those weren't his most striking features though. The right side of his face was covered in intricate black and blue lines, forming the shape of a dark bird that seemed almost alive on his face. Its feet, tipped with sharp claws, seemed almost to be standing perched on the threadbare collar of his shirt, and its beak cut across his nose. At the center of its head, far too large for a raven but somehow still seeming just right, Crystal's right eye was also the raven's one visible eye. Where his left eye was a plain and uninteresting blue, his right was bright and red like fresh blood. Crystal always sat back in shadows and darkness because the red-eyed raven on his face disturbed most who saw it, but his natural showmanship could not resist bringing it out into the light for this most perfect occasion. He grinned and waited for a few heartbeats, letting everyone get a good look and remember what they'd heard first or second or third hand about the prophecy, and the line they had repeated more than any other: The saviors will follow the red-eyed raven's call.

    “You might even say it's our destiny.”
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  4. Chapter 2 - Trouble on the Horizon

    For once, morning in Eles was not a quiet and calm affair. Allie was perfectly happy with that. The old town hall had been knocked down yesterday, presumably just due to the passing of that sickeningly huge dragon overhead. It had been old and rickety and in need of repair or replacement, but nobody had ever managed to find the time or energy to muster folks to do it. Now that it had collapsed entirely, however, it was the top priority of the day for the people of Eles. Folks were carting away the last of the rubble now, all the bits that had been too badly damaged to be good for anything but throwing into a fire or giving to the blacksmith to melt down and reshape. Zuma, one of the town's many farmers, was getting enough salvaged wood and nails to build himself a new shed, but most of the rest was being scrapped and the new town hall would be built from fresh wood.

    The chatter amongst the busy workers was not about the construction plan, of course. There was one word on everyone's lips: dragon. Dragons weren't a terribly common sight, even out here near the wilderness, but everyone in Eles had likely seen a few of them. The one that went by yesterday was like nothing they had ever seen before. Allie had gotten a good view of it, and she wagered it would have been able to eat a normal dragon in two bites. She wasn't surprised at all about all the end of the world talk that was going on now. As she stood there, drinking from her waterskin and taking a short break from working, she heard Nav and Shizuo passing with arms full of scrap wood talking and speculating how long they had until the dragon came back and destroyed everything. It was strange, just like the general thoughts about the old town hall had been strange: they were sure calamity was coming, but all they wanted to do was talk about it, not actually do anything to prevent it.

    "Ah, you must be the one they call Fat Al."

    Allie blinked and looked down to find a short wood elf, a woman with light brown skin and a mop of shaggy brown hair and silver eyes, looking up at her. Most people looked up at Allie, which was natural enough given that she was over six feet tall and made people wonder if she was something more than human, with giant blood being the obvious favorite theory given the fact that she had a robust build rather than being tall and skinny, but she could have spared a foot of height and still been taller than this woman. "Yeah, that's what they call me. What gave it away?"

    The sarcasm was not lost on the elf. She smiled sheepishly and ducked her head apologetically. "Ah, yes, sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. I'm Grene Briarwood. I was passing through and heard there had been some injuries, and I wanted to offer my services in exchange for a room for the night. I was told you were the person to speak to. I am well versed in herbal remedies, and I have some magic at my disposal."

    Allie just nodded and turned to walk away, waving for the elf to follow her. She wasn't sure how she had become the de facto leader of Eles, especially given that they were supposed to elect a mayor to run things, but it had become the normal way of things and as per usual nobody felt like making waves and changing it. It probably helped that Gencha had left them alone and autonomous for going on a good five years now, without even tax collectors coming through, so they were able to do as they pleased without answering to anyone. The soldiers who sometimes passed through on their way to or from the fort didn't care one way or the other about their lack of a formal mayor; most of them just seemed grateful to have some unfamiliar faces to talk to, and a lot of them seemed to like the independence and spoke fondly of leaving the service and settling down in Eles or somewhere like it.

    After they'd walked in silence for a minute or so, Allie glanced over to make sure Grene was keeping up with her long strides; she was indeed keeping up, but she was jogging to do so. She slowed her pace a bit, then pointed up ahead to the building they were heading for. There was a black bird perched up on the peak of the roof, sitting there and apparently watching them approach. "The injured folks were taken there. It's my house, but everyone calls it the tavern. I suppose it's both, now. Ground floor was made into a tavern, upper floor serves as a home. The injuries aren't bad for the most part, just a few who need the extra help, but we'll gladly take whatever help you can give. They're all laid out in the tavern on makeshift beds, aside from my son who's up in his room and got a nasty cut on his head from a falling mug. If you can fix him up, I'll throw in food and drink with the room." It really wasn't much of a cut at all, and he'd had far worse and recovered from them just fine, but Allie would happily spare him the pain and likely scar if she could. She'd planned to offer food and drink regardless, but she knew how people worked: handouts were to be rejected unless one had dire need, but make it into an exchange of sorts, even if it was something the other person would've done for free anyway, and they would feel fine about accepting it.

    "Oh, of course, thank you. I'll see to him after those more serious injuries you mentioned." Grene was moving at more of a fast walk now than a jog, but she didn't seem even a little out of breath from the exertion. She was looking around with interest as they passed by houses. "This place is nice. Very cozy. I've been wandering around these parts for years and I had no idea it was even here until yesterday. I came looking for where that dragon had flown over to see if it had shed any scales or left droppings or anything, because dragon bits are always useful for potions and the like, but here I found a whole town instead. I don't suppose you folks use some sort of magic to keep it hidden?"

    Allie chuckled and shook her head. "Nope, and we don't even try to stay hidden, really. When was the last time you wandered around here? We've been growing quite a bit recently, so maybe it was much smaller last time you were in the area."

    "Uh, maybe thirty years? I dunno, I don't really keep track of years like you mortals do."

    "That would explain it then, Eles was first settled twenty-seven..." Allie trailed off as what had just been said clicked in her mind. "Wait, mortals? Then are you an Immortal?"

    "Oh, yes, did I forget to mention that? My apologies. Yes, I am indeed, but don't you worry, I'm one of the nice ones. I don't go in for all that nonsense about trying to lead mortals down the right path. I figure you lot know your own business better than I do, so I keep to myself most of the time."

    "Oh." Allie couldn't think of anything intelligent to say in response to that. She didn't know a whole lot about Immortals, but what little she did know had just been blown apart by a few casual statements. She knew Jorick had founded the city of Gencha, and then forged the alliance between nations to create the Ivory Circle, all in the name of guiding mortals to a prosperous future. Other than that, she'd mostly heard stories about Immortals as either benevolent guides or wise leaders, with a few villains thrown into the mix. All of them were very much involved in mortal affairs though, so the idea of one just not caring much about them seemed strange and wrong. Then again, it was probably disgustingly arrogant and narcissistic to expect all of these ancient and powerful beings to give a shit about what mortals did.

    They made it to the tavern in silence after that. Allie was fine with it remaining as such, as she tried to wrap her head around the strange turn this morning had taken. It did not last long. Grene stopped a few feet outside the door and stared upward, unmoving with her eyes locked on something. Allie only noticed it when she was opening the door and stepped aside to let the Immortal enter first. Her immediate thought was oh gods, what now? The words that actually came out of her mouth were a little more intelligent. "Is something wrong?"

    "That raven isn't really a raven."

    Allie stared at Grene for a long moment, then took a couple steps away from the building to join her in looking up at the bird. It was staring down at them, or rather directly at the Immortal. She could see nothing off about the raven, other than the fact that it was apparently engaged in a staring contest. "What is it then?"

    Grene shrugged one shoulder. "I dunno, it's a very good disguise. I never was great at the tricky sorts of magic, but I've got some ways to find out." She lifted one hand with a single finger extended, but before she could raise it up to point at the bird it let out a sharp caw and leaped off the roof, flying away over the trees. Grene turned to watch it go with a pleased smile on her face. One the bird was out of sight, she turned to Allie and shrugged both shoulders this time. "I lied, I didn't have any way to figure it out. But it thought I did, and it ran away before I could do anything. Whatever it really is, it definitely understood what I was saying. Hopefully it'll stay away since it thinks I can rip off its mask." She seemed totally unworried by the bird-that-was-not-a-bird now that it was gone, and she casually strolled on in through the open door like everything was nice and normal. Allie stood there for a while, just staring up at the sky and trying in vain to figure out if this was all some grand cosmic prank at her expense. First the dragon, then an Immortal, now some mysterious thing disguised as a raven. Whatever the hell was going on, she didn't like it one bit.

    When she finally went inside, she found Moody had already been there and helping to take care of the wounded folks. The ink elf had come around yesterday, not long after the dragon passed overhead, to help round up the folks who had gotten hurt by panic or falling things. It was no surprise at all to see here there again today, nor to see her now chatting away with Grene like it was the most natural thing in the world. She was an odd one, and her friend or employer or whatever the hell she was seemed to be even stranger, but Moody had integrated herself firmly into the community over the years. Now it seemed she had already figured out what Grene was, apparently by way of noticing the silver eyes; Allie hadn't known that Immortals all had silver eyes, but she was determined to remember that in the future in case of more weirdness coming to Eles. Moody was saying something about how Tari would love to meet Grene and apparently trying to make it happen, and there was some mention of a book being written. Allie left them to it and went upstairs to give her son, a shy lad only just recently turned ten years old, a bit of warning about a stranger coming up later to heal his cut; he seemed willing to accept the presence of a stranger if it meant he would no longer be forced to stay inside and in bed per his mother's orders.

    With that done, Allie headed back downstairs. She let Grene know which room would be hers for the night, thanked her and Moody for their work, and took her leave. No matter what weird crap was going on, there was still work to be done, and she was not one to slack off for any reason. Besides, she could always quietly freak out about the obviously impending end of the world while getting things done, and she always had strove to be efficient. The thought made her want to laugh, mostly at her own expense, and she headed back to the center of town determined to make sure the construction of the new town hall went smoothly. If she couldn't ensure sanity in her own life, at least she could make sure that the town itself had some kind of order and reason to it, and that would have to be good enough for now.

    The early afternoon sun was harsh and bright as Ozzie stepped out of the little hut he had slept in. Fresh snow covered everything in sight, a few inches deep, and the light reflected off of it to make everything brighter than it had a right to be. He could already see signs of people packing up their belongings, though not nearly as quickly as he would have liked. The warriors of the clans were supposed to be on their way well before noon, but at the current rate they were working Ozzie suspected it would be more like an hour after noon when they got moving. Perhaps nobody had any urge to make haste in following him, or perhaps it had just been Grumpy who decided that if he was going to follow Ozzie then it would be at his own pace and no faster. He had expected this sort of petulant resistance, but it still irritated him nonetheless.

    "You look awful."

    Ozzie blinked and looked around to find the speaker. The only person nearby was a woman, pushing on into her forties, who was standing by a large cauldron hung over a fire and stirring the contents with a wooden spoon. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but he was too slow and she cut him off.

    "Yes, you, I was talking to you. You're scrawny, like a bunch of twigs in a coat, and call me a fool if you got more than a couple hours of real sleep. Sit." The woman looked up from her cauldron, then down to a large and flat rock sitting a few feet way. She even used her free hand to point for emphasis.

    "You can't order me around like that. Who the-"

    "I can, I will, and I already did." She looked at him again and there was a sort of steely resolve in her eyes that made Ozzie shut his mouth. "I said sit." He did so, teeth clenched to prevent him from saying anything he would regret. "Good. I'm Elle Joyner. Lots of the folks around camp call me Momma Joyner, but I think you'll be calling me Elle. That'll do just fine." Before Ozzie had time to do anything but look confused, she snorted a laugh and started spooning some of the contents of her cauldron into it a bowl. "I know who you are, and I've heard plenty about you. If half of it were even a quarter true you would've already killed me for being short with you. Heard plenty about you back when you were exiled, too, and I figure those were closer to the truth. Can't say how you've changed since then, of course, but I've made my guesses and you can feel free to prove me right or wrong. Eat." Elle had stepped around the cauldron as she spoke and was holding out the bowl, again with that calmly determined look on her face.

    "Thank you, Elle." Ozzie wasn't sure what exactly he was confirming by using her name rather than the apparently affectionate title, but he didn't mind much either way. Even with the bluntness and the speculation about his character, this was the most kindness anyone had shown him since he stepped off of the airship and back into what used to be his home. His politeness was also probably in part due to the fact that he was famished and the smell of rich meat and potatoes coming from the bowl was just what he needed. Ozzie ate a few spoonfuls of the stew, which was just as delicious as it smelled, before pausing to speak again. "So, you don't believe the stories. I think that might make you unique among the clans, given the reception I received. Why risk associating with me?"

    Elle laughed again, another rough but amused sound. "The truth is always smaller and simpler than the tales, and nobody is fool enough to give me grief for who I choose to feed and talk to. They all know I'd slap 'em round the camp for even daring. Besides, if you do turn out to be some kind of horrible murderer, I figure I'm better off getting into your good graces than treating you like a dangerous beast." The amusement in her voice made it clear she was joking, but Ozzie had to wonder if there was a nugget of truth to it nonetheless. Elle's amusement did not last long; first her face turned to surprise, then to something that seemed tired and a little annoyed as her brow furrowed. "I think you'll want to stand and face this one."

    Ozzie sighed and nodded. He wasn't sure what exactly was coming up behind him that made Elle look so wary, but he guessed it was nothing good. After another quick spoonful of stew, he set the bowl down on the rock and stood to see what nonsense was headed his way. It turned out to be a pair of women. The shorter one caught his eye immediately: a woman was a Neko, a person with the ears and tail of a cat, both of hers covered with fur as black as her long hair that seemed rather dull against her clothes that seemed to be made purposely to justify the use of the word 'loud' to describe an appearance. It was like a rainbow had been chopped up and slapped on her person at random, all vividly bright to the point of being almost painful to look at. As if that weren't enough eccentricity, she carried a banner on a long pole topped with what looked to be a carving of a cat, a red cloth with white markings that made some sort of triangular shape, but she seemed to be the energetic sort who could barely sit still for a minute at a time and her enthusiastic and exaggerated marching walk made the banner sway too much to make out the emblem clearly.

    The woman who walked behind her was much less visually obtrusive: a dark elf with white hair, wearing plain cloth and fur more typical of the folks of the northern clans. The hilt of a weapon showed over her right shoulder, what must have been a very large sword given the sheath visible on her left side, and she walked with the smooth grace of a seasoned fighter. Ozzie wondered for a moment if he'd wandered into a story, because this was a walking trope: a badass warrior with a goofy companion. The warrior stopped only when the stone that Ozzie had been sitting on blocked her path, but the companion jumped on top of it and slammed her banner down onto it... and then let go of it, leaving it standing and still enough to make out the emblem of a mountain with a snowy peak. For a moment Ozzie wondered if he had been mistaken and the colorful one had been strong enough to drive wood through stone, but a quick glance down showed that it had sunk into the rock seamlessly, clearly the work of some sort of magic. Perhaps she was not as harmless as she seemed after all.

    She stood tall and proud on the stone, looking down at Ozzie as she sucked in a huge breath. "I have the honor of presenting Fury, the champion of the Leopard Clan, called The Frozen Wrath and The Mountain's Might and Death's Mistress, slayer of beasts and men and monsters alike, and the greatest warrior of the Age of Mortals!" She paused only long enough to gasp in another breath. "And I'm Kaga! I'm the-" She seemed ready to jump into another long introduction, but the woman behind her cleared her throat, and that was enough to stop Kaga immediately.

    "I think that will suffice, Kaga. Thank you." There was an unexpected gentleness to Fury's words, but it evaporated as she turned her gaze on Ozzie. He saw hatred and loathing in her eyes, which seemed to suit her better than the softness she had displayed when speaking to her companion. Kaga pulled her banner out of the rock, leaving no hole or other mark behind, and hurried off to the side; Ozzie would have thought she'd be sad about not getting to finish her own introduction, but instead the neko girl looked excited. Fury drew her sword without bothering with any further words, and that both explained the excitement and drew Ozzie's attention away from Kaga.

    "I don't want any-" Ozzie's attempt to appeal for peace was cut off with a sharp laugh from the dark elf woman.

    "I don't care what you want." Fury pointed her sword at him, and as she did he could see that it was nothing remarkable. Perhaps it was well-made for a sword, and it was a huge thing that she managed to hold steady in just one hand, but there was no telltale shimmer of magic nor any of the modifications that would come with a magitech weapon. "Just like you didn't care what my cousin wanted. You killed her. I'm here to collect on the blood debt you owe my family."

    It took Ozzie only a moment to figure out what she was talking about. One of the two girls had been a half-elf born to a dark elf woman from the Leopard Clan, presumably Fury's aunt. He sighed and shook his head. Normally he wouldn't bother trying to explain, because explanations would only lead down a road he did not want to walk. Fury was likely going to force his hand, but he had to at least try to prevent it rather than resigning to revealing his dark little secret to the world. "You don't understand. It was an accident. Hurting me won't do anything but pile on more pain to what has already happened."

    "An accident." The clipped and angry words made clear that Fury didn't believe him for a moment. "You expect me to believe what you did to them was an accident?" Her hands tightened on her blade, and she ground her teeth together hard enough for Ozzie to hear it. "You accidentally choked them and burned their bodies? Now I want to kill you just for insulting my intelligence. Kaga, leave now."

    "Yes ma'am!" The Neko girl picked up her banner and hurried over to Elle, who had been standing and watching in silence the whole time. "Momma Joyner, we should go, we don't want to get in her way." Kaga tried to take her hand and pull her away, but the older woman didn't budge. "Momma Joyner?"

    "Don't you worry, dear." Elle patted Kaga's hand, then gently slipped her own free. "They won't be any danger to me. Run along now like she said, and I'll give you some sweets later." Kaga looked doubtful, but she nodded and left all the same.

    Ozzie saw the exchange only out of the corner of his eye. He'd turned his head just enough to see where the girl was going, keeping the majority of his attention on Fury. She could have attacked him at any time, but for some reason she was waiting until Kaga was gone. There was no objection made to Elle staying and watching, so either there was no worry about collateral damage with Fury's fighting style or she just did not care if the old woman got hurt. Whichever one it was, if it came to a fight then Ozzie knew his abilities would not discriminate between friend and foe, so he called out to Elle without looking away from Fury. "Are you sure you want to stay? It will be dangerous and I don't want to harm you."

    "Well, I suppose you'd best be careful then." There was a scraping sound from Elle's direction, and he was pretty sure she was standing there stirring her stew again.

    Ozzie sighed. He supposed it was for the best that he now had a good reason to hold back, at least. "Alright then. Fury, I really don't want to hurt you either, but I will if I must. Please don't make me do it." It was all he could think to do, and even he heard the desperation in his voice as he said it.

    "You won't." There was no boasting in Fury's voice, just calm confidence in her statement. She was not at all swayed by his earnest plea, it seemed, but still she did not strike. She wasn't even looking straight at him; her eyes were focused somewhere over his shoulder. It was possible she was staring at Elle, and for a moment he was worried Fury was planning to do something to the old woman, but she must have noticed his confusion and decided to clear it up. "Once Kaga is out of sight, I will kill you. I don't like to kill while innocents are watching. Ready yourself." Ozzie heard a chuckle from behind him, likely from Elle being amused about not qualifying as an innocent.

    "How noble of you." Ozzie's dry wit landed flat and unappreciated, but he didn't mind since it was meant for his own amusement. He had no weapons to draw, so he simply stood and waited and quietly tried not to panic. He knew all he had to do was be quicker to speak than she was to swing her sword. One syllable before she could make contact. That would be easy. There was this rock in the way that she would have to get onto to to get in range anyway, and that would take a second that would allow him to speak. No problem at all. Just the one word and then he could calm the situation down and-

    Her first attack came quicker than Ozzie would have thought humanly possible. He would have suspected she was using some kind of magic to enhance her speed, but there was nothing, not even a faint hint of a feeling of magic in the air. Fury did not bother stepping onto the rock. She lifted it up and brought it down straight into the stone before Ozzie could even blink in surprise at her speed. "Ha- fuck!" He tried to speak, but he was surprised again by the blast of dust and shards of shattered stone that pelted him and couldn't stop the strangled exclamation. "Halt!"

    The air was filled with dust, but as it settled Ozzie looked down and saw the point of Fury's sword frozen a scant two inches from his chest, right above his heart. He breathed out a heavy sigh of relief, then took a step backward to give himself a little more room. As the air cleared further he could see Fury frozen in place as well, one foot planted in between the two halves of the rock she had cut clean in half, and also in the remains of the bowl of stew that had also been in the way of her sword, with her upper body leaned forward to give her just enough reach needed to stab her foe. Her face was drawn into a rigid grimace that matched her name well, though her eyes didn't match it. Ozzie could see confusion in them, then mounting worry. The eyes always unsettled him. He didn't know why his power left them able to move their eyes while freezing everything else, but there was nothing to be done to change it.

    He walked around the sword and noticed as he did that the blade was now chipped and cracked along the edge; there was no trick to the sword then, just sheer physical strength and quality steel that just managed to not shatter with the force of impact. She'd been so certain of her imminent victory that she had taken not consideration for what he might do to defend himself; if he had pulled out a weapon and turned it into a real fight Fury would have been ruined by her damaged sword. Of course he never would have been able to stop her even if he did have a weapon, because she was just too damned fast for someone with no combat training to stand a chance against her. Ozzie had a strong suspicion that Fury was not just absurdly confident by nature; just as he had been able to peg her as a fighter from the way she walked, he was sure she had marked him as a novice in some way and acted accordingly. If he'd been a regular old magic user he probably would have been dead too, thanks to the distraction that had almost cost him his life, and he was sure she had gone for the strike at the rock rather than just leaping at him in order to hedge her bets against him having some kind of magic at his disposal. She was scarily dangerous, and he was tempted to kill her now just to keep her from coming at him again when he was not prepared.

    As Ozzie knelt down beside Fury he caught sight of Elle out of the corner of his eye. She stood frozen too, spoon held aloft in one hand, the other hand on her hip. He hadn't been willing to take the chance to speak quietly enough to keep the old woman safe from the effect, just in case Fury had screamed or something rather than attacking silently as she had done, but she would come to no harm so he left her as she was for now. For her benefit, he spoke louder than necessary so she would hear as well. "I tried to warn you, Fury. I could kill you just as easily, but I decided to be merciful. Want to know how what happened fourteen years ago was an accident?" Ozzie stood and walked a couple steps away, trying and failing to suppress the vivid images that had haunted him for so long.

    "This power came to me that day. We were playing out by one of the lakes and they tricked me into walking out onto thin ice. I fell in and only barely managed to pull myself out, freezing and half drowned. I found them sitting there in the snow, laughing and laughing and laughing. Something felt like it was boiling in me though, something that made me barely feel the cold. I said some words to them, angry words. Words you've probably said many times, but you don't have this curse of mine, else you'd never want to say them again." Ozzie turned around to look at Fury now, feeling tears welling up in his eyes but willing them to stay there. He'd thought about that day for fourteen fucking years, but talking about it still made him want to crawl in a hole and die.

    "You know the story of The Strangler. Gods, I'm sure half the rumors about me are some bullshit about me being like him. He strangled dozens of children for fun and then threw their bodies in the fire, so the story goes. The clans were so disgusted with him that they decided he deserved the same fate as his victims, so they strung him up by his neck and built a fire under him. You know that curse folks use, taken from the story? Those couple words that seem like nothing much, just a harsh insult saying they should meet the same fate as The Strangler?" Choke and burn. Those words, said in his own voice, haunted his thoughts and dreams just as much as the memory of watching those girls on fire and clawing at their own throats. Ozzie swiped a hand across his eyes angrily, pushing through the pain to get the whole story out. He'd never told a person about this, at least not anyone he intended to let live after they heard it, and it was oddly satisfying to finally do it. "I said them that day, out by the lake. I was angry and I said them. I didn't mean them, really, no more than anyone else means them when they say them. But the words took on a life of their own and the words became reality. This power I've got, this curse I call it, it makes things happen to people when I say it should. I don't even know which words will do something until I say them where someone else can hear it. That was the first time it ever happened. I kept my fucking mouth shut after that, let myself be exiled rather than risk saying something that might end up with another person I loved getting killed by a stray word."

    Ozzie took in a deep breath, trying to calm himself a bit. It didn't work, and his words came out hot and angry. "That's how it was a fucking accident. An accident I've been paying for my whole damned life since that day. There won't be any more of those though, I can promise you that. I've learned how to avoid such things now, and I know which words do awful things to those who hear me say them. I don't want to use this fucking curse any more, but by the gods I swear if you come after me again what I do to you will make The Strangler sound like an amateur." Ozzie stepped up closer to Fury and dropped his voice to a whisper. "There are far worse words than choke that I could use." He heard her breath catch when he said it, and her eyes started to dart around wildly as she realized what was happening to her frozen body. Ozzie walked away, back toward Elle, and spoke again once he was standing by her and a good distance away from Fury. "Release!"

    Elle looked as if she was still held in place for a long moment as she stared at Ozzie, but then she nodded to him, though he wasn't sure what if anything the nod was meant to convey. Fury stood straight immediately and brought a hand up to her neck, and she stood there glaring at him for a while. The silence dragged out for half a minute before she finally looked down at her battered blade, shook her head, and dropped it on the rock she'd split in half. She gave Ozzie one last look, calculating but not overtly hostile at the moment, before she turned and walked back the way she'd come. He was sure this would not be the last of his problems with Fury, but for now it was over and nobody had needed to die. He was also sure that word would get around now, that his secret would be out. The clans were sure to want him dead now more than ever, simply because his curse was too terrifying to abide its existence.


    He turned to find that Elle had gone back to tending to her stew as if nothing had happened. "Yes?" He braced for the worst, ready to leave as soon as she demanded he do so.

    "Would you like some more stew? You didn't finish the first bowl, and I've found few things better than warm food after almost dying."

    Ozzie stared at her for a bit, trying to figure out if she was fucking with him or not. She looked for all the world like she wasn't bothered by what had just happened, like what he had done to her and what she had heard were totally trivial things. Here he was worrying about the end of the world as he knew it, and she was acting like everything was fine. All he could manage to do was ask a single question, full of confusion and exasperation and a little annoyance: "Why?"

    One side of her mouth turned upward just a bit, a smile that looked almost smug. "Why what? Why am I not treating you like a leper? Boy, I've lived side by side with people who seem like they'd kill you as easily as say a polite word to you, some with hands and muscle and some with magic and contraptions. You think I'm worried about a new take on an old game? Pfft." Elle started spooning stew into a bowl as she talked. "Besides, you went and proved me right. If you were the kind of monster folks want you to be, you would've killed Fury right there. I figure I know what you did when you whispered to her, and I also figure you weren't lying about being able to do some terrible things if you wanted. You gave her a warning and let her go instead of killing her, and that might make you a damned fool for letting someone like her come at you again in the future, but I'll take dumb and kind over smart and cruel any day. Now eat up, and try not to be so damned gloomy all the time, makes for poor company." Elle pushed a new bowl of stew into his hands and gestured toward a nearby stump for him to sit on.

    Ozzie took the food and sat, falling silent as he ate, just thinking. Maybe things weren't so bad after all. He'd already made one unlikely ally, and perhaps she could help spread the truth of things in a kinder fashion than Fury would likely do. He was still pretty sure everything was ruined, but Elle had been right about the warm food. If he was going to die, at least he could do so on a full stomach.

    Peregrine stood at the head of a long table, looking down at the map and markers that had been arranged in front of her. Things were not going quite as smoothly as she had hoped. The fervent resistance of the superstitious side of the citizenry had been a surprise; she had been sure that only a small number of zealous types remained, and that they wouldn't be able to rally many in their favor. She had spent years carefully shifting the beliefs of the people with incremental steps toward this end goal, but apparently it had not been as effective as she had thought. Titana had been responsible for gathering the general feeling of the populace, and either she or her subordinates had failed horrendously in their estimates.

    As if she could feel Peregrine's silent displeasure, Titana cleared her throat and leaned forward in her chair, pointing to one spot on the map: the Grand Cathedral in the center of the Old District, which had been the central place of both political power and public gatherings before the Glass Spire had been constructed as the new seat of power for the ruler of Gencha. "The fanatics are mostly gathering here, though there are dozens of other areas they're holding. These brown lines," she indicated one of many scattered across the map of the city, "are the known barricades people have set up. Almost all of them are controlled by fanatics, only a few by loyalists." Peregrine already hated this terminology, but it had stuck before she could change it; it made the fanatics sound like they were traitors, when in truth they were just ignorant and afraid. Perhaps some of that annoyance showed on her face: Titana cleared her throat again and hurried onward. "Ah, yes, it looks bad, but it's manageable. The small holdout areas are not as independent as they look, and that's how we can break them. They've gotten their hands on some of our communication crystals, or someone worked up a good copy, and they seem to be taking orders from the ringleaders at the cathedral. If we break that central group, which would be quite simple, it would cause the whole structure to collapse." She looked to Peregrine with what appeared to be hope in her eyes, probably the hope that this offered solution would offset her previous failures.

    "No." If Peregrine had been inclined to cruelty, she supposed she would have enjoyed the crestfallen look on Titana's face. Instead it simply irritated her. She'd seen Titana having some sort of whispered conversation with Jacob Cane in the corner of the room as she entered, and she had to wonder if they had schemed together to come up with this plan. It was just the sort of ruthlessness she expected of them, but it was also pathetically stupid. "It's far too late for that approach. Dozens of people could have easily been rounded up for disturbing the peace. Hundreds could have been put down or detained as violent rioters. Thousands? No, we can't go making thousands of our people into enemies. We have to win them back to our side."


    Peregrine looked to the other side of the table to find Kitti with her hand raised partway off the table, leaning forward opposite Titana. The girl was still so uncertain in these settings, despite having been part of the advisory council for months now. She made a conscious effort to soften her face and her voice; Kitti had not done anything wrong, so it would be improper to direct ire at her. "Yes? Do you have a suggestion?"

    "I do." Kitti sounded unsure of it, and from the other side of the table Peregrine could hear a faint snort of a laugh from Jacob, but she pressed on nonetheless. "If we want to win them back to our side, then we have to show that we're not against them. The best way to win allies is to work against their enemies. There are, um..." Kitti stood and went to point out some spots on the map, referring to a paper in in her hand between each one to make sure she got them right. "Six groups of loyalists that seem to be getting ready to cause trouble, in these places. Two inns, a brothel, two housing blocks, and one city guard armory; those are their centers of operation, from what I've been told. Three, maybe four, of them will be heading to the Grand Cathedral. The others will probably try to break through some barricades. That'll mean a lot of dead people, one way or the other." Kitti looked up from her paper and paused with her mouth open, looking horribly confused.

    Peregrine could understand the feeling, because it was mirrored in herself if not on her face. Kitti had never before offered such detailed information, and honestly she wasn't sure how it had even been acquired. Kitti had been with her for most of the day, and nothing she did seemed to indicate a budding career as a spymaster. The Hands sitting on either side of the table were staring at the woman as well, and Peregrine noted some wariness and perhaps anger on Titana's face. That was good, Titana needed to be knocked down a peg or two, and this was a fine way to see it done. Even so, she was wary of this newfound knowledge from unknown sources. The fact that it matched up closely with the details Titana and her spies had already collected might have been a good sign, but then again perhaps someone was playing tricky games and spreading false information with just enough of the truth to give it credibility."And where exactly did you come by this information, Kitti? I am interested in your plan, but if it comes from an untrustworthy source then it might be a trap of some sort."

    Kitti blinked and shook her head. "Oh, no, the plan is all mine, nobody gave it to me. I talk to a lot of the servants and such in the Spire. They've been able to talk of little else since yesterday, and since I gave the speech that set it all off they all seemed to sort of seek me out to tell me things today. A lot of it was probably nonsense, but the folks do live all around the city, and they've got friends and family spread about as well, so when I hear the same story from half a dozen people..." Kitti shrugged. "I just wrote the reliable bits down and thought about it for a while, that's all."

    Peregrine let her mouth curve up into a reserved smile. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Titana glaring daggers at Kitti, but the anger should have been directed inward; where the official spymaster had spent a lot of gold and worked hard to gather information, Kitti had done almost as well just by being sociable and approachable. "I see. Good. Let me correct two things before you go on." Peregrine looked to the map, not bothering with the pointing; instead seven glowing marks appeared in the air just above it, six red and one gold. "There are seven groups. The brothel group is controlled and populated by Titana's people, and they'll be marching around the city just being loud but doing little else, so make it three who plan to move on the cathedral." She made one of the red marks glow brighter for a moment. "There is also a smaller group planning to gather in a warehouse here, criminals and thugs mostly, and they plan to use the chaos as cover to go stealing whatever they please. Adjust your plan accordingly."

    Kitti nodded, and she only took a few seconds to consider it before launching into the explanation. "That's good, having a distraction group will help keep the loyalists from thinking they're being turned on. So here's the plan: first, send guards to keep a close eye on the wandering troublemakers, especially the warehouse ones, and arrest any of them that cause problems. Let the others keep on going, just warn them that any illegal activity will be swiftly acted upon. Then, for the cathedral, get some guards there before the loyalists show up. Maybe even bring in some of the army to make sure we have enough people. Set them up along the sides of the roads and the edges of the plaza just out front of the cathedral, no drawn weapons or anything, and let it be known that they're present to keep the peace. The fanatics will think that means they're going to be taken down, and the loyalists will think they have official support. But," Kitti held up a single finger to emphasize the point, "all they have to do is exactly what they said they were there for: keep the peace. If anyone throws a rock, no matter which side they're on, arrest them. Fighting and breaking things also calls for arrest. Anyone who wants to just stand there and scream at the other side is welcome to do so, but everyone who gets violent needs to get arrested. If they're present in your name, and they're dealing with the matter fairly, then both sides will get the message that this violence is unacceptable. Fanatics will see that we don't want to kill them, and loyalists will see that we disapprove of their methods. It might take a few days to really sink in, but I think we can get through it without many more senseless deaths."

    Titana immediately jumped in with a rebuttal, of course. "Nonsense. Playing nicely with them only encourages this sort of behavior. Next thing you know they'll be forming barricades and holing themselves in to protest taxes or some other similar foolishness. The fanatics have to be broken to send a message."

    Jacob chimed in as well. "The slow play is admirable in its benevolence, truly, but it's weak-hearted. Lady Peregrine needs to act with strength, else she will lose the respect of the people, and then everything comes crashing down. Just go round up the lot of them by force if you don't want to kill them, but those days of letting the idiots keep on could spiral out of control, and it's already having a significant negative impact on the economy."

    Kitti looked to Peregrine, but she simply raised a questioning eyebrow. They were valid points, and if Kitti could not counter them then clearly her plan was inferior. She nodded, just barely enough head movement to be visible; apparently she'd gotten the message that she was on her own in this discussion. She looked back to Titan and Jacob and shook her head. "If we go clearing out one side of the issue, then it makes the whole problem worse. It would give the violent loyalists tacit permission to do as they wish to the fanatics, and that means more death. This has gone beyond reason, and we need to step in and reassert it, not cause even more chaos. It might be easier in the long run to accomplish Lady Peregrine's goals with these people out of the way, but it might ruin her instead. The people follow her because she is fair and kind and wise, so if she does something as unfair and cruel and foolish as harming people just because they disagree with her then her support will crumble. A good ruler retains power through the will of the people, not through strength and fear."

    As it turned out, Kitti was not in fact alone in her position. Rhea spoke up for the first time. "She's right. Regardless of which method is morally preferable, going against only the fanatics will cause chaos and instability. Those who currently sit neutral on the issue will turn against Lady Peregrine if she is seen to be acting cruelly. It's a quick way to clean up the current problem, but it will only bring more and bigger problems down the road. The slow and less bloody solution seems the better path to me."

    The two pairs of opposed people looked at each other for a bit, apparently had nothing else to add, and one by one they turned their attention to Lady Peregrine. She looked down at the map, considering her options. After a solid minute of silence, she nodded to herself and looked up to the Hand of Justice. "Rhea, get the guards ready, and the army if you see fit. Persuasion didn't work, so we'll try peacekeeping. Don't pull them from their normal posts until near sundown, cut it as close as you think is safe; I want to give people as little time as possible to realize we'll be intervening in tonight's festivities."

    Rhea simply nodded and stood to go do her duty. Titana and Jacob both seemed to be poorly masking some anger at losing this debate, which was to be expected; they always had been poor losers, and that was part of why she put them in charge of spies and coins. Kitti, however, took her victory with grace. There wasn't even a smile on her face, and in fact she looked more relieved than anything else. Peregrine had to work to avoid laughing. She was so used to dealing with people hardened to the world of politics that seeing a novice feeling her way through it was a constant delight. Sometimes the veterans got too cynical for their own good, so injecting some naive optimism into the mix was a good thing, from time to time.

    "The rest of you can do as you please for the remainder of the day. We'll meet back here an hour after sunrise to discuss how the night went." They all rose from their chairs and offered their respects, a bow and two curtsies, before making their way to the doors. Titana and Jacob set to whispering fiercely with one another before they were even out of the room, and that probably meant nothing good for Kitti. They would not be foolish enough to see her physically harmed, but some scheme to make her fall out of Peregrine's good graces was entirely likely. Kitti would just have to deal with her new enemies on her own, and hopefully grow wiser for it. For now Peregrine could only concern herself with the bigger picture, and right now that meant waiting and watching and hoping she hadn't just made a foolish mistake in choosing peace over force.

    It was only just after noon, and already the Grand Cathedral was packed shoulder to shoulder with angry and frightened people. Quinzel Herz watched from up on the third floor of the building, leaning one elbow on the railing of the balcony and resting his chin on his closed fist. The cathedral was almost disgustingly opulent, and far larger than it had any need to be. He estimated that the place could comfortably hold a good two thousand people, and if you packed them in like they were on the ground floor then triple that number would fit. If the muscle men of the operation didn't get to work keeping things calm, he figured they might actually end up seeing that happen thanks to all the people trying to shove their way inside. A lot of them were humans like himself, but just as with any crowd in Gencha there were tons of other sorts mixed in, everything from dwarves to lizardfolk.

    Quinzel couldn't help but smile at the sight, a smug little smirk that he knew made people want to punch him in the face. The vast crowd was in large part his doing, and he was proud of his work. Yesterday's big speech and the violence that followed had been enough to light some embers amongst the citizens of Gencha, and Quinzel had done his part to fan them into the roaring flames of the inferno currently swarming the building. He always worked best when he was being paid, and he had been paid very handsomely for this little number. All it had taken was a few quick written pieces on the leaders of Gencha, flashy and dramatic things that played fast and loose with the truth, but close enough that denial would only make them look more guilty for having to deny it in the first place. Lady Peregrine was a heartless tyrant who wanted to crush those who merely disagreed with her; Rhea, the Hand of Justice, had failed her duty to protect the people of the city and was complicit in all the death and destruction last night by not lifting a finger to stop it; Jacob Cane, the Hand of Coin, was beast driven by greed and lust, and a man could trust neither his wallet nor his daughter's safety in the bastard's presence; Titana, the Hand of Ships, was an incompetent fool who had gotten good men killed time and again by sending airships off with faulty gear and untrained crews. It was all scathing stuff, written in big bold letters that damn near screamed off the page. Copies had somehow been quickly made, presumably by some kind of mages that Quinzel's employer had also paid quite well, and then stacks of the things were handed off to folks along with a few gold coins and instructions to pass them out to anyone they saw. It was a devious little plan, and an effective one. Quinzel could see many hands in the crowd clutching pieces of his work.

    He turned around from the lovely sight below and gave the room a little bow, still wearing that cocky smile. "You have your roused populace, good sirs, as promised. I trust you all no longer doubt my skills."

    "You do good work, Mr. Herz." The speaker had a deep and smooth voice, and he sounded just as smug as Quinzel looked. Nue, the financier, mastermind, and leader of this whole operation, had good reason to be pleased. He'd requested work that would draw at least a thousand people to the cathedral, and that number had been passed barely an hour after the distribution had started.

    "Quinzel is fine, no need for the formalities between friends, hm?"

    Nue laughed, nodding. "Very well, Quinzel. I think we shall become good friends indeed." He leaned back in his seat, stretching his arms out over the back of the couch he had all to himself in the small room. Nue was a Lycan, one of the relatively rare strains of human and animal mixes that leaned farther to the animal side than those who ended up with just a tail and a set of ears. He looked more like a wolf that had a bit of human added to him, instead of the other way around: the man's whole body (or at least what was visible given that he was wearing a rather nice set of purple silk with gold thread embellishments) was covered with grey and white fur, though he had a patch of blue on his face, and he had a proper wolfish snout rather than the flat face of a human. Quinzel hadn't ever talked to someone like Nue before yesterday, but he'd found that gold was a good way to get past the hurdle of strangeness and unfamiliarity.

    A white-haired man sitting in a nearby chair chuckled and spoke up. "Aye, you keep this up and I bet that friendship'll become mighty profitable. There's the magic of spells and the like that anyone can learn with enough effort, but the magic of influence is a rare thing. Rare things are useful and valuable, long as they keep on being useful."

    While Quinzel had gotten comfortable enough with Nue, he was still very unsure of this other man. Neos Rune-Eye was known for two things: he was an extremely powerful practitioner of the magical arts, and he'd been banished from Gencha for performing horrible experiments on prisoners stolen from the cells of the city guard. In a strange way Quinzel could sort of understand it because he enjoyed seeing how he could toy with a person's mind with his words, and with the power of magic at his disposal he might have taken a similar path as Neos, but it was still rather disturbing. The man had been one of Lady Peregrine's Hands before his deeds had been discovered and he had been exiled; the position of Hand of Magic had been left unfilled for the seven years since Neos had been pushed out of it, and that was probably for the best given the sordid history of men and women who had held that title throughout the history of Gencha. The fact that Neos was back in the city was probably not a good thing, but he was not about to speak poorly of his employer's choice of companions.

    "I shall strive to remain valuable, then." As uncomfortable as he was with the man, Quinzel was determined not to let it show. He had learned long ago that selling the persona, the cocky and assured master of wit, was key to selling his work. The political elite of Gencha had made quiet use of his services to slander each other for years, but this job for Nue was by far the best paying of the lot. He wasn't sure what the man hoped to gain here, but then it was his policy not to ask too many questions. There was only one that mattered to him, for the moment. "How will you let me know if you need more work done? I move around the city a lot, you know."

    "I am aware." Nue gestured to the pair of people standing near the one door to the room. "I'll send them to find you. They're very good at finding people, when needed." There was an implied threat in there, and Quinzel read it loud and clear: cross me and I will find you. That was fair enough; as long as Nue kept on paying, he was happy to stay loyal and keep his mouth shut.

    "Then I suppose I'll take my leave. It's been a pleasure doing business with you, and I look forward to the next time." Quinzel gave the man a proper bow this time, then strolled his way to the door. Nue and Neos started talking about something in hushed tones as he walked away, and he was disappointed to be unable to make out any of it. Stopping and trying to catch some of it would have been far too obvious, so he kept moving and kept that self-satisfied smile on his face.

    The two standing near the door were like strange mirrors of the pair who were sitting and whispering with each other. Snowball was a Felis, an animalistic humanoid much the same as Nue, but she had the features of a cat rather than a wolf. She was also quite short, only about three feet tall, and she'd introduced herself as Lady Snowball Shortpaw the Third. Quinzel wasn't sure if she was some kind of nobility from afar or if it was just an affectation, but she seemed like a pleasant sort so he was inclined to allow the eccentricity. The other was a human man who had introduced himself as Necropolis. There was something off about the man, and he moved with strangely jerk and stiff motions, but he was apparently a healer of some sort. He also carried a clay jug, always held protectively in one hand, that was full almost to the brim with water. Quinzel was not sure how a small cat woman and a healer with a jug of water were supposed to find him, but he had no reason to doubt their abilities. Nue had already proven to be good at finding strange but effective people, case in point Quinzel himself being selected out of the dozens of people who wrote of political matters in Gencha, so he had to assume that Lady Snowball and Necropolis fit into the same pattern.

    Quinzel made his way down and out of the building through the servants' passages he'd used when entering, wondering all the while what kind of arrogant ass had built a cathedral like a castle with special halls and stairs just for servants, and as he did so he never got away from the dull roar of the noise of people gathered in and around the place. He just couldn't wipe the smirk from his face, not that he actually tried. His work had done serious damage to lords and ladies and would-be powerful persons of Gencha before, but this was something new and exciting. He was helping to make history here, and he could only speculate about what shape it would take. Something big was going to happen tonight, and the Grand Cathedral would surely be the center of it all.

    With that thought in mind, Quinzel made his way out and away, through the loose groups of people that were already forming on the street behind the cathedral as the plaza out front filled up, and he did not intend to stop walking until he was out near the walls of the city. Whatever was going to happen here, he wanted no part of the physical reality of it. It was likely going to be bloody and brutal, and he wanted to be as far away as possible when it happened.

    Tari tried to ignore the shaky thread of terror that she'd shoved to the back of her mind. Her hand was not as steady as usual, but the words were still legible so she kept on writing and pretending everything was fine. The throbbing headache that made her temples feel like they were going to explode outward in a gory shower of scale and bone at any moment was lovely for helping to put the fear in a little box to be dealt with later, but it was not much of a boon for the writing. It was far from her best work, too rambly and pretentious, but it was the best she had for now. That was fine, she could always edit it later, just so long as she had the writing to focus on for the moment everything else would sort itself out.

    The writing lasted only a couple minutes after that thought had passed through her mind. She had a horribly rough draft of the first section of her work of history done. For what was meant to be her crowning achievement, it was currently rather lackluster. Tari would happily blame it on the various problems that were ruining her focus, but that would mean thinking about them, and... She was thinking about them now.

    "Fucking great." Tari tossed her quill aside in annoyance and pushed the stack of paper aside. "Fine then, why not, where's that cursed map?" She knew talking to herself like this was probably not a good sign, but the babbling meant less thinking and the less thinking she did the happier she would be, at least until she had the map set up again. She found it right where she had left it, despite her fervent hope that it had managed to disappear. Tari took her time unrolling the thing, then making sure to put something on each corner to keep it from rolling back up.

    As she did so, trying not to look too closely at the map as if that would somehow keep reality from being what it was, other thoughts came and blindsided her. The new sharp pain in Tari's head made her whimper, and there was no avoiding this side of things. She had opened those prophecy books, and they were rather.. insistent about what they wanted to convey. Most written works of prophecy were in fact recreations of the original, for the original copy made by a true prophet was a dangerous thing. Such words were meant to be remembered, so they made it so. From Tari's research into the matter, she had concluded that it was an involuntary thing that happened whenever a prophet recorded the words of their gift. It was said the only way to know a true prophecy was feeling like you were having the worst hangover of your life after reading it. Tari figured that wasn't quite enough to describe it, but the words seared across her consciousness and blocked out other thoughts for a bit.

    Four pawns will rule the game: three fly and one hides
    One pawn will court fear and meet disaster
    One pawn will court hope and come to ruin
    One pawn will court chaos and find destruction
    One pawn will court kindness and bring doom
    Two must live to see the end lest the binding shadows or blinding light end it all

    The worst part of these damnable prophecies, as far as Tari was concerned, was that they were damn near useless. She should have thought of that before opening those books. Sure, they were prophecy, but prophecy regarding what? They could be talking about things that had already happened, or that would happen long after she died. She'd been looking for something regarding a massive dragon that came out of nowhere, not pawns. It sounded like some political bullshit to her, and that was no use at all.

    Empty of life and empty of power
    The deep one hungers
    Tread not the empty waters
    For the deep one hungers
    All hope and happiness will be taken
    By the deep one's hunger
    Nothing will sate but only rouse
    The deep one's hunger
    Every mote of light and life
    Feed the deep one's hunger
    Flee the rising tide and run far away
    From the deep one's hunger

    Tari rubbed her temples gently, hoping that would be the last of it for now. That one sounded like it was about some kind of sea monster, definitely not a dragon, so it was also useless. All of them were so full of doom and gloom that they were unsettling even if they were useless, which was just what she needed when she was already trying to keep her head on her shoulders. There had been one that jumped out at her though, right as she had been about to close the book, and it- Searing pain knocked her thoughts askew once more.

    The mother births the father's son in abominable flesh
    From darkness a light shall spring forth and herald the coming
    The ground will quake as destruction approaches
    And the death of an age will lay in its wake

    That was the one. Tari clutched her head and just focused on breathing for a bit. The bit about the ground quaking as destruction approached sounded a lot like what had happened when the dragon flew overhead, and she was pretty damned sure that thing could destroy whatever it wanted so the figurative name seemed apt. If anything could kill an age, it would be something that looked like it could tear apart whatever it damn well pleased. Maybe the Age of Mortals was ending and they were headed for the Age of The Massive Terrifying Dragon. The thought made her laugh, a dark and bitter thing rather than a happy and humorous one, but it turned into a groan as she sat there and slowly rocked back and forth in her chair.

    After a few minutes of no more painful prophecy reminders, Tari was able to function like a relatively normal person again. That unfortunately meant getting back to the map. She pointedly ignored the marks she had already made and did the whole process over again, hoping against all logic that the result would be different. The map showed the known world of Iwaku: two large, curved continents that together made a sort of horseshoe shape around the Crown of the Gods, and then the array of islands that bridged the gap and completed the poorly named "circle" of land around the sea. The Ivory Circle was also a misnomer, in truth: the nations that had formed the alliance at first had only controlled maybe half of the coastline that touched the sea, but nowadays the name was closer to the truth thanks to the expansion of borders that came from frontier towns like Eles. There was water out on the outer sides of the continents and islands of course, but few people bothered with any special name for it: there was the one sea, the Crown of the Gods, and then there was the ocean, the water that lead to nowhere important. There had been many attempts to seek out new lands in the ocean, but most voyages never returned and those that did reported nothing more than some unremarkable islands.

    The waters were not Tari's concern today though. She focused on the southern end of the western continent, the one cartographers and the like called Matria but which normal folk thought of as the western continent. Eles was not marked on the map, nor were most of the other smaller towns around the world, but that was not a problem: the mountain was marked very clearly on it, as it should be given that it was the most noticeable landmark for many miles around, and figuring out where Eles was had just required a little work referencing more local maps. She stuck a pin into the mountain, then grabbed another and looked at the local map she'd pinned up to the wall earlier. There was already a hole on the big map where Eles was, but Tari was determined to be... this would make it septuple sure that she had the right place. She certainly did, and so she let out a resigned sigh as she stuck the pin where Eles was, northeast of the mountain. She then grabbed the length of yarn she had used to mark the path and did it again: she tied on end to the mountain pin, grabbed the other end and pulled out so it was taut, then lined it up with the Eles pin. The green line made straight for the heart of the eastern continent, Patan, and it crossed perfectly over one dot on the map.

    Tari sat back in her chair and let her head rock back as he eyes slid shut. There was nothing of note in the Crown of the Gods to draw the dragon's interest, and it had been flying as straight as an arrow until it went out of sight. She'd even done some rough estimates of speed to figure out how quickly it could move, and even with some generous fudging of the numbers there was no mistaking it. This was what had her terrified, and more shaken than any prophecy bullshit. It wasn't a fear for her own safety, but rather for what would happen to the dragon's target. She hadn't been able to sleep last night thanks to the worry, and she was on course for another restless night at this rate. Odds were good that she would lay awake with one thought rattling around in her head.

    The dragon would reach Gencha tonight.

    Now that she had reached that same conclusion again, for what felt like the thousandth time, Tari felt a tear slipping out of her closed eye and sliding down the scales on her face. She had friends and family in Gencha, folks she still talked to via letters, and there was no way to warn them of what was coming. All she could do was sit there and wait for news of the carnage, and hope that people would send word that they were alright. As much as she wanted to book passage on an airship now, to get there and make sure everyone was alright, that simply was not possible. The only airships that came through the area nowadays were military ships from the fort, and since the new arrival had been destroyed by the dragon's passage they were left with only some old and weak ones that couldn't cross the sea and would have to take weeks going the long way around. Even then, they weren't in the habit of taking on passengers, even if they could pay (which Tari could not), so that was a vain hope as well. All she could do was wait and hope, and she'd never been great at that. She could think of only one way to stop that dragon, and it was rather unlikely to happen in this day and age. But with nothing left to her but hope, Tari decided to say it aloud, and to hope that someone heard her plea and heeded it, even as she felt that hope turn to cynical ashes in her mouth.

    "May the gods have mercy on them all."
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  5. A History of Iwaku by Tari of Eles

    I - The Age of Gods

    The Age of Gods is the least understood period of Iwaku's history. Gods are not known for sharing their life stories, after all. What is known comes from the writings of fervent adherents, mostly Immortals who lived in the time when the gods did not hide away from their creations. Each of these accounts has points of contradictions with others, but with diligence and a lot of research and some guesswork to figure out who was lying or fed the wrong information, it is possible to pull together a coherent narrative of the time period.

    Most accounts of the origins of the gods refer to a creator of some sort (and in fact some simply name it Creator), though the exact nature of that creation is unclear. Some writings refer to it as a being, others as a place or object, and yet others as an abstract concept. It is also unclear whether this Creator had much in the way of interaction with the gods, but the utter lack of any such tales leads me to believe that the Creator did not interact with its creations. I suspect the great variance in the supposed temperament and desires of the Creator comes from the gods doing much the same as the mortals: they sought meaning and intent from that which made them, but they received little to nothing in the way of answers so they made their own answers instead.

    The specific events of the Age of Gods that bridge between the beginning and the end are very difficult to put together. As any scholar of ancient texts knows, the gods did not receive proper names until the Age of Mortals, and the Immortals in their own writings referred to the gods in the old ways, much like the Immortals themselves did not take names until they interacted with mortals. Each god was known by what we think of as titles, but unlike the Immortals they often had multiple titles that they were known by. To complicate matters even further, language was less formalized and more freeform back in those days, so deciphering exactly what a writer was saying can often be challenging. Thus without extensive research it can be nigh impossible to figure out who was doing what in a given story. For example, are the Lady of Vengeance and the Lady of Fierce Justice different goddesses or one in the same? This remains a matter of debate, and it is only one of many. Thus it is best to speak of ancient events impersonally rather than trying to follow certain characters, as it were.

    After they were created, the gods lived together in a period most often called the Harmony. They shaped the world to their liking, but in this period there was no creation of life. It is wholly unknown how long the Harmony lasted, but I suspect it was many centuries at the very least. Eventually, as the earth and water of the world was shaped to the liking of the gods, they came to their first disagreement. Some wished to create new things, not just reshape what already existed. The others thought (according to the most reliable accounts) that this would be an insult to the Creator, that they would be saying they were not satisfied with what they had been given and it would anger the Creator. Most accounts suggest this argument spanned a long time, but again, there is no way to know for certain.

    At some point those who wished to create new things chose to stop trying to convince the opposition. Instead they gathered in a secret place and began their work of creating new things, supposedly justifying it by saying the Creator would not have given them the ability to make new things if they were not supposed to use it. One account says the other gods did not notice anything was amiss until the wind began to blow around the world, where before there had not been such a thing as air or wind. By the time they found the upstart creators they had already made so many new things that the world was, in the view of many of them, ruined. Those gods were said to have left and never returned. The others were dismayed, but when they were finally convinced to look at the new creations they found that these new things were beautiful in their own ways, and many even pleased them more than what the Creator had given them.

    With the departure of those gods who could not stand the supposed affront to the Creator, those who wished to make new things greatly outnumbered the remaining gods who thought they should stop. There is no name and little recognition given in the various written records of these events to the dramatic shift that this represented, but I have found it best to recognize it as the start of a new period of the Age of Gods. I call it Discord. Harmony fell to the wayside as the gods began arguing about the best way to proceed with creation. There are dozens of different tales of arguments over whether or not to create certain things, but the most heated came of course from the question of creating living things.

    The very idea of creating something that could propagate throughout the world without any specific guidance from the gods was rather terrifying for some of those opposed, apparently. I suspect they simply felt a version of the horror that they originally attributed to the Creator: these new creations would go and ruin everything that the gods had done with the planet, and that could not be tolerated. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, their protests were overruled by the majority of gods who thought it was a swell idea. There are plentiful accounts of the progression of living creations, from simple plants to fish to insects and so on. The specifics are unimportant for this history, as the exact path of progression does not matter in the long run. What does matter is one simple fact: some of the creator gods grew tired of just making new things that reproduced and did little more.

    The creation of violence is another matter that is very unclear. Some suggest that one of the gods started making creatures that simply destroyed others, and the cycle of life as we know it was a later implementation to salvage the situation. Others suggest that it was planned and methodical from the beginning, that the god who was the architect of this new creation was obsessed with the idea of making life that could persist without any intervention from the gods. Whatever the exact reasons were, it is generally agreed upon that a single god first made a living thing that destroyed other living things, and then got others to join in after they saw it in action. This horrified not just those who had opposed creating life, but also those who wished to see their creations thrive in peace forever. Some records say this was what first brought the gods to fight with one another, but I don't find this very credible. More likely is the story that comes from a devotee of the Unseen Lord (also thought to be the same entity as the Lord of Mysteries): there is a certain power in mere existence of an idea, and the gods knew this. They knew that once violence and death had been introduced into the world, there was no taking it back in any permanent way, for they were not omnipotent and could not erase the existence of these concepts from the minds of their fellow gods. Rather than fighting, I believe what followed was much debate and eventually a plan to make sure that all of the destruction served a purpose rather than turning to wanton chaos.

    Thus were all living things made mortal, and given the need to consume to survive. It is a simple yet elegant solution to make sure that the destruction and death went toward maintaining life and creating new life. This seemed to settle the creator gods for a long while, but of course it did not last. They started discussing making new life, but the others argued that what they had was plenty enough, for the whole of the planet was now thoroughly inhabited by all manner of things. Most historical records agree that they managed to convince the naysayers to let them make just one last thing, something that would keep them satisfied for all eternity: living things that were similar to the gods themselves, and which could act as stewards of the other life on the planet to make sure everything didn't spiral away into chaos. The historical account I believe to be the most accurate in this regard notes one thing that I have not found elsewhere: this supposedly final creation of life was accompanied by a vow from the insistent creator gods that they would not make anything else without the agreement of all gods in the future. It is a minor detail, but I think it gives important context to some of what came later.

    This supposedly final creation of life was, of course, the creation of the Immortals. Though we call them Immortals, this is a misnomer: it would be more accurate to call them "ageless," for they are not truly outside the cycle of life and death, they simply do not grow old and die as we mortal creatures do should we live long enough. They were meant to live forever and keep a watch over the world, to give the gods reason to pull back from creation of new life and watch what their greatest creations would do. This did not, in fact, come to pass. One record I got my hands on, a tome written by one who signed it only as 'The Witch of the Water,' said that although time was not measured in any meaningful way in those days, she was amongst the first group of Immortals and estimated that the time from their creation until that era of peace was shattered lasted only a couple hundred years. This differs wildly from the histories written by mortals claiming to be recording the words of gods or Immortals which say that the peaceful period lasted thousands of years. I tend to believe the information from the Witch of the Water over these others, as she is an Immortal I have seen mentioned in many places in my research and I trust the word of one who was there rather than those who simply claim to have been given information from such sources.

    Regardless of the time it took, it is known that the creator gods grew restless once more. They and the other gods grew to be very fond of the Immortals, and many of them chose to take on physical forms and live amongst the Immortals. Some garnered worship and took positions of leadership while others chose to work among them as equals. There are a few stories of gods choosing to renounce their greater powers to transform themselves into Immortals, with motives ranging from romantic love to humility to simple capricious whim, but I found only one such story to be credible in my research. The gods that had been originally against the creation of new life were said to have taken to the Immortals most strongly, and that after they saw how wonderful the Immortals were they performed some sort of ritual or ceremony of apology to those they had fought against. It is pure conjecture on my part, but I would guess that the existence of such intelligent and capable new life was so beloved by those who had opposed creation in the first place because it gave them new entities to socialize with that had not spent eons disregarding their wishes and shoving them to the wayside because they were in the minority. Whatever the reasons for it, it seems an undisputed fact amongst the records I have read that the previously anti-creation gods loved the Immortals the most, and they in turn were most loved by the Immortals. There is some reason to believe that envy for this new state of affairs was what caused some of the other gods to go rogue.

    Again, as with the creation of violence and death itself, most records indicate that a single god decided to change things to his liking. I strongly suspect it was the same god, in fact, but it is hard to say for certain. A few records note that his old name was discarded and made anathema, thus there were no references to him directly in regards to the initial creation of violence, but he was given a new and more fitting name: Lord of Destruction. This Lord of Destruction went off and started creating monsters. Some call any big and scary creature a monster, but I prefer a special definition in this regard: a monster is a creature that specifically seeks out intelligent life forms to kill and consume. There is a lot of grey area left with this definition (Is an ogre a monster if it kills everything it can rather than seeking out mortals? Are some dragons monsters for eating mortals, while others are not monsters because they stick to other prey, and how does their own intelligence factor into the equation?), but it will be suitable for these creations. The Lord of Destruction made things that very specifically were intended to kill Immortals and eat their flesh to survive. Most writings from Immortals say this was done out of jealousy for the gods who were better loved, but I found one piece that offers a more interesting take. It was a brief piece written likely very recently, within the last few decades, and circulated amongst certain cults and secret societies (and the less said about how I got my hands on a copy, the better). The writer claimed to be a worshipper of the Lord of Destruction, and that he had communicated with the god direction; the god's original vision, according to this piece, had been for all things to live amongst a cycle of destruction and renewal, and all of the favor heaped upon the Immortals had completely ruined the cycle, so he worked to impose his vision one the world once more. I cannot verify this, of course, but it seems plausible.

    The tale of the first monster is one that has, surprisingly, made it through the ages with remarkable levels of accuracy. Most cultures have their own version of the story: a jealous god created a fearsome beast (sometimes a dragon, sometimes a twisted humanoid form, sometimes giant and vicious version of a normal creature, etc.) to destroy the lives of those who did not love him as well as he wished them to. All of them seem to stem from the same true story, but in the more accurate accounts of it the beast was an armored lizard with six legs and no wings, which was apparently the precursor to dragons (which followed soon thereafter). It is unclear how many Immortals died before the creature could be stopped (the lowest figure I found was 8, the highest was 14), but it came as a great shock to them and many of the gods. This was, apparently, the first time any Immortal had died, and for so many of them to die at once it must have been terribly frightening. They buried the dead, but not for the reasons we mortals do it; there was no honor and reverence in it, the Immortals were simply frightened and hurt and could not bear to look at the dead any longer.

    Some gods, however, were intrigued by this new creature. They sought out the Lord of Destruction, or perhaps he felt them out and brought them in on the secret. Whichever way it went, they began secretly creating more living things, more monsters, all the while proclaiming shock and confusion and worry whenever they went back amongst their peers. The gods gifted Immortals many things to help them protect themselves; the use of magic started at this point, a pale imitation of the power of the gods, but potent enough in its own right. The Immortals had formed a sprawling commune, with simple tent-like structures to get out of the rain, but they realized that sticking closer together and building defensive structures would help them greatly. Flying dragons were, apparently, the Lord of Destruction's answer to the creation of walls.

    Eventually (perhaps days later, perhaps years, it is uncertain but I lean toward days), the gods who were helping to protect the Immortals figured out what was going on. They went out seeking their counterparts, the gods who were creating monsters, and seek an end to the madness. The Lady of Swift Justice lived up to her name (though it is unclear whether or not it was one of her names before this event, or if she earned it there), and she managed to find one of the rogue gods alone. There are a few different accounts of their conversation that have some level of credibility, but they contain enough differences as to cast a lot of doubt on each other. There is, however, a common narrative between them all: the Lady of Swift Justice confronted the rogue god, he said she and the others were ruining things by keeping Immortals above the balance of life and death, and he named the Lord of Destruction as the one leading them in fixing the problem by making monsters. The exact point of contention that pushed the issue over the edge was not mentioned in any of the credible accounts of the conversation, but I suspect the sticking point was that vow that the creator gods had sworn to make nothing more without the approval of them all. The disagreement turned sour, and the Lady of Swift Justice struck the other god down. It was the very first time a god had been killed, and it was the opening step of the final period of the Age of Gods: War.

    Three factions formed as news spread of what had happened: those who urged for peace and reconciliation (the largest group), and the two groups who decided that things had gone too far and so the other side must be brought to heel or eliminated. Those who rallied around the Lord of Destruction were, in most accounts of the war, bent toward the goal of destroying all of the Immortals and thus removing the contentious problem to return things to how they had been before; others say they wished to kill all of the other gods as well, to remain as the sole masters of the world. The other side did not have any leader, they simply wished to protect the Immortals and stop the Lord of Destruction from creating more atrocities. Those who refused to take a side tried to stop the hostilities, but many of them were eventually pulled into the fighting; at some point many of them were said to have left entirely, to join those gods who had departed long prior after they were displeased with the initial creation of new things.

    The Immortals proved to be formidable fighters once they understood that their very existence was at stake. For the first stretch of the war, their side absolutely obliterated the monsters that were sent after them. It was by all accounts a long and protracted slog, not a constant battle or a siege but rather waves of monsters being sent out with months or years between them, and gods trying to catch their enemies alone to subdue or destroy them. Very little progress was made on dealing with enemy gods, and so many of the gods and Immortals grew resigned to this as the new status quo; the Witch of the Water wrote of it in a rather poignant fashion: "Life became an endless tense pause, always waiting for the next battle, always waiting for the death that might be lurking just beyond the horizon. The one good thing that came of those times was not realized until much later on: living with that constant sense of dread allowed our kind to empathize with the mortals, and without this experience I think we would have killed them all after the war was over."

    Mortals were, in fact, the turning point of the war. As one record explained it, the rogue gods used the monsters as distraction rather than as true attempts to kill their enemies. They realized that monsters were not enough, that massive beasts were unable to overcome the cooperative efforts of the Immortals. In secret, far from the fortress-city of the Immortals, they devised the creation of creatures that would be able to use those same tactics against the Immortals. They were made to be weaker, but far more numerous, since numbers were seen as the true advantage in this war. Thus were the mortal races born, as tools of war meant to eradicate the Immortals. Elves were the first, made as rough copies of the Immortals, but many other sorts followed: humans, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, and even more monstrous but humanoid beings like ogres and trolls and giants. Humans were apparently found to be the most robust base for modification, so they were used for the majority of the hybridization experiments that bore the likes of Nekos and Lycans and others that were formed of a mix of human and animal parts (though some exist who are mixed forms of elves and dwarves). The rogue gods created vast armies of these people, sending large monsters now and then to keep their enemies waiting and guessing, biding their time until they felt they had enough power to utterly obliterate the Immortals.

    Many reading this now will be aghast and think I am telling dreadful lies. We mortals live under a sort of collective delusion, fueled by entirely false stories of our creation. Most are not even aware of this history, and in fact many live under the idea that there are only a handful of gods that are all benevolent or at worst disinterested in our affairs. We like to think that we were created by benevolent gods, that we were made for good reasons and are blessed and beloved beings. This is, unfortunately, false. We were created as weapons. Some of these historical accounts make mention of an inability to make new Immortals once the gods became divided, but it is unclear if that was because their creation required many more gods working in tandem than either side possessed or if there was some sort of shared pool of power or if each side was able to stop the other from doing so in some manner. Whatever the case may be, mortals were apparently much simpler to make, and so they were made by the hundreds in preparation.

    The first and last pitched and open battle between the full might of these opposed forces was cataclysmic. Legions of mortals bearing weaponry and magic marched upon the city of the Immortals, and the rogue gods came with them. The mortals died by the thousands, and that was before the gods started throwing their own power around, which was often deflected by their opposite numbers and into the hordes of mortals. The gods eventually turned their focus upon each other, and death rained indiscriminately upon the lesser beings below. That very well could have been the end of both mortals and Immortals, and in the writings on the subject from Immortals who where there that seems to have been the conclusion they came to as the land itself began to be torn asunder.

    Survival came from a rather unlikely source: the gods thought long gone, and the gods who had sat on the sidelines wishing only for the conflict to end. Some had been sent to find the gods who left, to seek help in the most dire of days, and they had been able to convince their wayward fellows to return. It is unknown how many gods sacrificed themselves to save the existence of we lesser beings, but I suspect from the following events that it was perhaps the majority of gods as a whole. The gods who wished only for peace dove into the heart of war and sent the Immortals and mortals, who at this point had ceased fighting each other and simply sought some form of shelter or safety, off to distant parts of the land. In those days there had been a single landmass on the world of Iwaku, and the great destructive forces conjured in the war between gods was enough to tear it apart and form the continents we know today. I find it highly ironic that we now call it the Crown of the Gods, for it was not their crowning achievement but rather their lowest and darkest moment that caused its creation.

    The gods were much diminished when the dust settled. One estimate, from one Immortal who signed with the name 'The Siren of the Shadows' (which is a very odd archaic name for an Immortal, as they all tended toward neutral or good tone/connotation whereas this one seems less wholesome), was that there had been over a thousand gods prior to the war and after that massive battle they were reduced to about fifty. Those who stood to the side had been all but annihilated, which is rather unfortunate: had there been enough of them left they might have successfully talked the rest into peace after seeing all the horrible losses, but instead the survivors grew bitter and determined. The Immortals and mortals became totally secondary to the ongoing fight between the gods themselves, which turned into an affair more of assassination and ambush than of open combat. The rogue gods were apparently much better at this style of fighting, and I suspect it was because they continued to create monsters and beasts to send after their enemies as distractions. The benevolent gods (for lack of a better term; calling them the "good" gods would be presumptuous and arrogant) suffered for their unwillingness to create such living weapons, and they saw their end approaching as their numbers slowly dwindled. Instead they chose to turn to the Immortals, those creatures they at first had never wanted to exist but whom they had come to love, to be their saviors in their darkest days.

    There is one scroll I got my hands on that appears to have been the work of a god, or at least a direct transcription from someone listening to a god dictating the words. It was found in a sealed tomb by, well, tomb raiders some years ago, and it ended up in my possession by sheer accident and no illicit or criminal acts on my part whatsoever. My translation (for it was written in an archaic style that would be as gibberish to a modern reader) of the writing in its brief entirety is as follows:

    "The Lord of Destruction cannot be allowed to win. I choose to offer myself as a weapon so that the rest may live. May the Creator smile upon my actions, and may those who survive me cherish that which has been sacrificed. My life is the last gift I have to give, and I give it freely.

    -The Lady of Mercy"

    This, I believe, refers to the creation of a weapon known as the Godslayer. Given what came later, it seems fitting that a god would have to give her life to make such a weapon. In the writings of Immortals I have found that speak of this weapon, none speak of its exact creation or who wielded it, but they do say that guile and treachery were used to wield it to full effect. The Siren of the Shadows wrote that the Godslayer (this time acting as a title-name) sought out the rogue gods and pretended to be sympathetic to their cause, and then once trust had been built up they turned on those gods and slew a great number of them. This must have come as a great shock to them: by all accounts this was the very first time a god had ever been harmed by an Immortal, and it was a surprise attack that killed many of them. I must note with satisfaction that this acts as a sort of poetic justice given the symmetry of this event and the first monster attack on the Immortals.

    The rogue gods broke and scattered after that surprise attack. It seemed they lost their conviction after their numbers were cut down significantly in one fell swoop and seeing a weapon in existence that they were unable to stand against. As a side note, a lot of ancient forms of magic rely on the power of sacrifice greatly amplifying the effect of a spell, and so I suspect a sacrifice of the life of a god made for a very powerful weapon indeed. With both sides left even worse off than they had been at the end of the battle, each side sought ways to end it without surrendering. I think at that point it had probably gotten to a point where surrender meant death, for there was no other way to answer for all that had been done by either side in the conflict. It is unknown what exactly was planned by the rogue gods, but the benevolent gods turned once more to the Immortals.

    Again, sacrifice was the key to salvation. This time the Immortals shed blood for the cause, though it seems that writing of this event was something of a taboo among their kind after the fact. I had to turn once more to writings from cultists of the Lord of Destruction to get worthwhile information, but it was of course less reputable than works written by Immortals themselves. It seems that multiple Immortals gave their lives as fuel to some form of magic wrought by the benevolent gods. With their numbers so diminished, each individual god was somehow made less powerful; I suspect this is related to whatever mechanism made them unable to create more Immortals after they had split into warring factions, but again there is no firm explanation of it to be found. This lessened power meant they were more easily disposed of, and the benevolent gods ended up deciding to seal the rogue gods away for eternity rather than destroying them. The cult writings suggest that the gods lacked the power to kill the Lord of Destruction, who was the strongest of those remaining, and so they had no choice but to imprison him. Whatever their reasoning, it seems their work succeeded and the rogue gods were sealed away forever more.

    The benevolent gods from then on pulled away from living amongst their creations. It may have been a product of their guilt for their actions or grief for the sacrifices required to put the rogue gods away or simple fear of the Godslayer weapon they had created (all are theories posited by various writings of Immortals or cultists, with none standing as a clearer answer than the others). Whatever the motivation, they retreated to the status familiar to we mortals: distant, seemingly apathetic, and only very rarely acting in obvious ways to affect the affairs of our world. I, for one, cannot look down on them for this choice. If mortals were to wage brutal war over the lives of, for example, dogs and cats, then I as a survivor would not want to constantly live with the reminders of what had happened. One can only guess at the thoughts and feelings of gods, and I suspect my own musings on the subject are far too simplistic to be accurate.

    With the gods mostly out of the picture, the lesser beings were left to pick up the pieces. All that had been familiar to Immortal and mortal alike had been blasted away, and their rescuers had scattered them far and wide. The Age of Immortals dawned on a broken world, and it was sadly far from the end of pain and death and war.
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  6. Chapter 3 - Destruction

    Two figures wearing dark robes, with cowls pulled over their heads to mask their faces, joined the circle. Their addition made twelve shrouded figures, a significant number indeed, and enough to begin. They were standing in a dark room, with only a single candle lit in the middle of the circle.

    “We failed.” One of the last arrived spoke up, a woman's voice.

    “Disappointing.” One of the others spoke up for the group. Nothing more needed to be said on the subject.

    “I succeeded.” A man spoke, smug pride in his voice.

    “Good.” Their leader, a woman they could all recognize despite her disguising clothing by way of the whip-thin tail lashing back and forth behind her. “Our master will be here soon. Make use of his arrival to improve your influence. It may not be necessary in the long run, but better to hedge our bets.”

    “Yes, mistress.” The smug man folded his hands together at his waist and bowed to her.

    “And you two, keep trying.” The leader did not seem particularly phased by their failure. “If nothing can be done, then we will simply move on to the next plan. That is, of course, if our master does not see to it himself.”

    “Of course.” The other woman matched the smug man's bow. Her companion did the same, but did not speak.

    “Very well. We shall meet again tonight. Midnight.” The leader clapped her hands twice, and they could hear a door creaking open out in the darkness. That was the sign that the meeting was over, quick and brief as always so as to minimize the risks of being caught. The eleven others took their leave, by ones and by pairs, leaving only the leader of the Destruction Cult standing before the candle. Though none were there to see it, a pleased smile was fixed upon her face, an expression that had not made its home there for many hundreds of years.

    As the sun sank toward the horizon, Gencha was far more lively than it had any right to be. On most days there was still a lot of people moving around the city, and a few street vendors or proper shops still trying to sell their goods until dark well and truly arrived, but this was a special day. It was like a festival day, but rather than a light and happy mood it was shrouded in clouds of suspicion and hatred. The stalwart merchants were not calling out about how their goods would bring prosperity and happiness into one's life, as they usually did; on this night they were instead speaking of the protective qualities of their trinkets, and a few of them were selling actual pieces of armor to boot.

    Crystal was enjoying it immensely. Just as he had foreseen, Gencha was gearing up for what might as well be called a civil war. Those who refused to be forcibly marched into the future were holing themselves up in makeshift bunkers, and they'd taken over a whole section of the city centered on the Grand Cathedral. There were rumors about the military being brought into the city as well, and that made everyone all the more nervous. Currently everyone was thinking that Lady Peregrine intended to wipe out the dissidents, and sentiments about that were quite mixed, leaning negative. As much as folks wanted their backwards-thinking fellow citizens to stop being so foolish, nobody wanted to see them killed for their beliefs.

    All this and more had been easily gleaned from conversations with talkative folks in taverns. Crystal had his thumb on the pulse of the city, and it was going at a frantic and erratic pace. It was exactly as he had hoped, and so he was all the more certain of the plan he had concocted. Cosmic Kara had done some sort of magic, scrying she called it, to find a guard armory that looked well-stocked. She'd described some crates inside, marked with the words “military surplus,” and that was a damned good sign. City guard gear was nice, sure, but the military got all the best stuff, and even their scraps would be fantastic without a doubt. The crew was arrayed all around the armory, spread mostly between a couple taverns with a few lurking in alleyways and doing a fine job of looking like the normal useless layabouts that would be found skulking in alleys. Crystal himself was laying up on the roof of a blacksmith's shop right across from the back side of the armory itself, waiting and watching for when guards would be called off to go help deal with the insanity near the cathedral. He'd been waiting up there for over an hours, fighting impatience, but the time had to come soon if they were to make it to the cathedral before nightfall.

    As if on cue to match his thoughts, a figure came into view up the road on the other side of the armory. A man wearing the same uniforms as the guards, or rather just the same grey tabard with the white tower marked on the front, was running up the street toward the entrance to the armory. Crystal waited a couple minutes in eager anticipation, and sure enough the messenger ran off down the road again followed by what looked to be twenty of the armory guards. That was less than he'd hoped, but still enough. The group had counted about thirty guards in their surveillance of the place, and Crystal figured they could handle as many as twenty of them with surprise on their side, so ten should be simple. He waited a few more minutes, just to be sure none of the guards were coming back, then crawled over to the side of the roof and whistled a tune down into the alley below. With little bursts of light, a dozen mice appeared on the ground and immediately scurried off to find the folks he mentally ordered them to find; everyone knew to look for the little summoned mice, and that their appearance meant it was time to gather for the raid on the armory. Summoning wasn't the most powerful of magic, of course, but Crystal had always found it useful.

    Within five minutes, the lot of the group was gathered and ready to go. They didn't bother with any special plans or strategy for what came next; Crystal knew those plans would go out the window as soon as the fighting started, so he didn't bother. They all knew to rush in and take down any guards, and then be quick about looting the place. It was all ready to go, and he was about to start the countdown, when someone spoke up.

    “This doesn't feel right. Something is wrong.”

    He looked over to see Kimberlyn staring at the armory wall like it was a dangerous animal, and she looked pale and sweaty. Daz patted her on the back and laughed and said she'd had too much to drink while they were waiting. That earned a round of laughter from the group, and Kimberlyn looked sheepish enough about the comment that Crystal figured it must have been the case. He started the countdown after they settled down, and on “go” they split off into two groups to run around the sides of the armory from the back, making as little noise as possible. Crystal himself lead the left side group, and he looked back to see Kimberlyn trailing at the back; that was fine by him, better for her to stay out of the fight if she wasn't feeling well.

    The seven guards out front barely even had time to draw their swords before they were hit from both sides. Two went down from sparkling blasts of light from the other group, the work of Razzle Dazzle or Cosmic Kara or both of them, and another fell to an arrow. The remaining four formed a box of sorts, but they were outnumbered more than five to one and they did not stand long. They managed to cut down two of their attackers, but that only enraged the others enough to pull them down. Some folks stopped to loot their bodies, but Crystal pressed on inside to find five more guards waiting in formation ten feet from the door, each holding a shield and spear that crackled with glowing blue light. That was very bad news indeed; these guards had found the time to grab some of the fancy gear while their fellows were slaughtered, and if those spears did anything crazy powerful then those five guards would likely kill them all.

    The five spears pulled back, and the light around them grew more intense, but a deafening blast of sound hit the building and their ears. The building itself shook, and Crystal saw dust drifting down from the ceiling. He wasn't sure why that was the clearest thing he could pay attention to, but his ears were ringing and he couldn't hear anything. That.. noise, whatever it was, like a thousand trumpets blaring right into his ear, had rattled him and left him with an annoying buzzing noise as a parting gift. He stumbled a couple steps to the side and saw Kimberlyn outside, staring up at the sky with her eyes wide, and the scales he could see on her were glowing bright red, bright enough that he couldn't look directly at her for long.

    The guards had been hit just as hard as Crystal's people, but he was already gathering his wits and so were a few of his companions. He yelled at them, then realized he couldn't even hear his own voice; reaching up, he felt a bit of blood trickling from his right ear. That was a damned annoyance, but one to bother with later; he gestured sharply to those looking his way, pointing to them, then making a cutting motion across his throat, then to the guards who were still trying to recover from the pain and confusion. Kara and Halaster at least understood his intent. Kara threw out her hands and sent white-hot blasts of light at the guards, and Crystal aided her assault as best he could. He whistled, unable to hear it but not needing the sound to get it right, and handful of shimmering silver bows and arrows appeared in the air and began firing on the guards. Three went down from the combined assault, and the other two were recovering and shielding themselves while they prepared their weapons for a counter-attack. Halaster appeared behind them in a puff of thick black smoke and buried a dagger into each of their backs, then finished the job with twin stabs to the sides of their necks.

    By the time the guards were dealt with, everyone seemed to be mostly recovered from whatever had hit them. Well, everyone but Kimberlyn, who was still standing outside and staring upward, still glowing. It was eerie, but Crystal had other things to deal with before he could try to unravel that mystery. His hearing was not recovering, and that was a very bad sign indeed. Most of the others seemed to be having that same problem, but some seemed alright after a while. Those ones started to rummage around in the room, what appeared to be a combined storage room and lounge area for guards, and came up with some medical supplies, the fancy and expensive kind that came infused with magic. Crystal tried a few things, and eventually figured out that dipping a finger into a tub of some kind of sparkly green liquid and then shoving that into his ear fixed whatever had been damaged. He organized folks to take turns coming to get medicine to shove in their ears, the whole process taking maybe ten minutes, but eventually all was well. He told them to get to looking around the armory to take stock of what was their, especially any paperwork that might give them a ready-made list, and off they went.

    Crystal himself headed for the entrance of the armory, and Kimberlyn still standing there. As he moved away from the chattering folks now looting the armory, he realized there were sounds coming from outside as well, faint crashing noises and what sounded like screams from closer by. He had to shield his eyes from the glowing light of her scales, but he got as close as he could without needing to shut his eyes entirely. “Kimberlyn, what are...” He trailed off as she lifted her arm and pointed. He had to step around her to look up and over the armory in the direction she pointed, and the direction he could now tell she was staring at. As he did so she spoke, her voice faint and her words slurred, like someone talking in their sleep.

    “Destruction incarnate rains fury upon the treasure of the ages.”

    Crystal knew that line, one from the prophecy that everyone was freaking out about, and hearing her quote it sent a shiver down his spine. As he looked up he felt like he'd swallowed a lead weight, but he understood now why she had chosen that specific line to quote. A dragon was flying over the city, a massive beast that made the buildings look like toys. The sound that had so battered the armory and everyone in it must have been a roar from the creature as it flew by. As he watched, it breathed a massive plume of fire down toward the ground, and with a swipe of one of its huge claws it smashed the Glass Spire clean through the middle, sending the top half spinning to the side.

    “Fuck.” Crystal couldn't think of anything else to say. Gencha was being torn apart in front of his eyes, and he could do nothing but stand and watch and hope he would be spared the destruction.

    Kitti had made an effort to be far away from the trouble, but all it did was make her worry more. She'd seen columns of men, likely Gencha military people out of uniform, marching up the streets late in the afternoon. Her home was out near the eastern gate, but she'd decided to get even closer to the edge of the city by taking up residence atop one of the inns that was a stone's throw from the gate itself, looking out upon the plaza that was still filled with merchants even as night approached. The inn was six stories tall, almost high enough to look over the wall itself, and it had a rooftop bar that allowed her to watch over a lot of the city.

    Things quickly took an unexpected turn. Kitti had taken a seat at a small table and made effort to put out the vibe of not wanting any attention, but clearly that had not been enough to dissuade her current annoyance. The man had said his name was Rory, and then proceeded to babble on about some nonsense to do with magitech. It was hard to say if the man was making a poor attempt at flirtation or if he was just strange and thought approaching random women to talk about his hobbies was fine and normal and not at all off-putting. Kitti made the bare minimum of replies, trying to make it clear that she was not interested, but it wasn't working. Even staring off toward the Glass Spire and neglecting to respond wasn't enough to deter the man. She had to give him credit for his persistence, but she really wished he would go on talking about magitech locks and keys to someone who actually cared.

    “Oh dear, what is that?”

    The tone of Rory's voice had changed quite dramatically. Instead of the jovial rambling tone he had been using, this sounded small and frightened. That drew Kitti's attention, and for a moment she was confused, but then she followed his wide and staring eyes and saw it for herself. Off to the west, beyond the Glass Spire that had been the focus of her gaze, there was a bright red spark of light rising in the air, sending off other little bits of light that exploded into showers of red sparkles. Another one followed, this one also red. They had to be far away, out beyond the walls of the city, maybe even all the way to the sea... As a third red light rose in the sky, the pieces clicked together in Kitti's head.

    “Distress flares.” She gripped the edge of the table with both hands, working it through verbally rather than trying to wrangle her sudden panic into letting her think clearly. “From airships, most likely. But why so many? They're too close to shore for it to be a null storm, and those are the magic flares so it couldn't be that anyway.” Another flare went up. “Attackers? A sudden storm? I don't...”

    She fell silent as another flare shot off at an angle and struck... something. She watched it bounce off of something solid in the distance, and it illuminated that something for just a moment. The last of the sunlight had slipped away a few minutes past, but once she knew there was something to look for she noted a patch total darkness where there should have been a lot of stars. It was impossible to tell how big it was, but it must have been very large indeed. Kitti wasn't sure when she had stood up, but others on the rooftop had noticed and were also looking at the flares in the distance, now at least ten of them. Something awful was coming, that much was certain, but she couldn't think of anything to do but stand and watch and hope she was dreaming.

    “Better hurry if you want to get there in time.”

    Kitti looked to Rory, nodded, and realized she did in fact know what to do. She had to go find Lady Peregrine. She hurried away from the table, toward the stairway leading down into the building, and it was only as she reached them that she realized something had been entirely off about the man who had spoken. He'd varied between awkward and fearful, but in that last sentence he was calm and assured while those around him were breaking into fearful confusion. She looked over toward the table as she started down the stairs, only to find nobody sitting there, and Rory nowhere to be found at all with a quick sweeping look around. That was strange and worrisome, but she couldn't think about that now. She had to get to Lady Peregrine, she wasn't sure why exactly, but she knew she had to be there or else something terrible would happen.

    “Pull all forces back from the cathedral immediately.”

    Rhea knew better than to speak against an order from Lady Peregrine, but tact allowed some room for question. “Wouldn't that ruin your plans for the evening?”

    “They're already ruined. Gather everyone who can hold a weapon, ranged preferably, and all offensive magic users. Bring them to the plaza down below. We're going to need them.”

    Lady Peregrine's voice brooked no argument, and the calm and assured tone of voice sent a shiver of fear down Rhea's spine. She still was not sure what all of this was about, but it must be something bad. They were in one of the upper chambers of the Glass Spire, and Lady Peregrine had spotted the distress flares in the distance. Her eyes were now glowing white with some magic that enhanced her vision, and whatever she saw in the darkness was enough to make her slip immediately into what Rhea liked to think of as her Empress mode of command. It was the sort of calm but demanding tone that Lady Peregrine took when commanding troops to battle, and Rhea hadn't heard it in many years. Whatever was out there... She sighed and decided to set decorum aside for just a moment.

    “Fine, it'll be done. What's coming?”

    “A dragon. A very large dragon. Or at least that's the body it's using for now.”

    Rhea was used to these sorts of confusing answers. Lady Peregrine always seemed to be a couple steps ahead of everyone else, and those mysterious statements always proved to hold some kind of truth to them later on down the road. Whatever the hell the dragon turned out to be, at least now she had something firm to hold onto as a visual for the enemy. Gathering the troops for a mysterious warning was useless, but a giant dragon? That was something Rhea could work with, or rather work against. She gave Lady Peregrine a quick salute and hurried for the door. As she did so she heard a faint hissing sound followed by the shatter of glass and the rustle of wings. She had no need to look back to know Lady Peregrine had cut a hole in the window and flew out to greet the threat coming for Gencha. She had work that needed doing, and gawking like a fool would only delay it, so she hurried down to get to work gathering backup for Lady Peregrine's fight to come.

    The dragon made it over the walls of the city before Peregrine reached it. She wasn't sure if it spotted her approach or just wanted to announce its presence, but the creature roared, loud and angry, and she could see glass shattering from the windows of buildings below. Had she not seen it coming and created a small protective shield, she very likely would have had her eardrums blown out rather than simply hurt with the loud noise.

    A little voice whispered to her. “Oh, he's a big one. You planning on fighting that alone?

    The voice was one that nobody else, were they to somehow be standing beside her as her wings propelled her through the air, would be able to hear. It spoke directly into her mind, and she simply thought her response, making sure the voice would catch the dry sarcasm as intended. “Of course. Just its screeching alone was a threat. I'll certainly be fighting it alone. Why wouldn't I?” The voice simply chuckled, then left her to focus on the beast in front of her.

    It had very certainly noticed her as she got within a few hundred feet of it. The dragon was red with mottled black spots, and its head was large enough that for a moment Peregrine fancied the idea of making it into the frame of a home, or perhaps a small castle, after this thing was killed. Then she saw the orange glow building deep in its throat as its mouth opened, and that brought her back to seriousness. She rolled to the side, tucking her wings down against her back to dive with all the speed she could muster, but even so she only barely avoided the blast of flame. For a second there it felt like her legs had caught fire, but a quick glance showed that had just been heat with no flame. It wasn't exactly a comforting thought, but having her legs not be burnt off was definitely a good thing.

    As she pulled out of her dive, Peregrine lifted one hand toward the dragon and focused only long enough to gather power in her palm. A beam of bright blue energy shot forth and slammed into the creature's hide, but it didn't even leave a mark. There was some kind of rumbling sound after that, and as the dragon made a lumbering aerial turn toward her she realized it was laughter. The dragon was laughing at her. She narrowed her eyes and tried again, this time gathering far more energy than she'd used before. She blasted the dragon and then flew off to the side, keeping away from its turning head, and as she did she saw that she'd left a small mark on one of its scales. “Well, that's not good.

    The voice in her head chuckled. “Definitely not. Need some help?

    Not yet. I'm going to buy Rhea some time. If that attack managed to do something, a light artillery barrage should hurt it and give me time to cook something bigger up. I'll let you know if I need you.” The voice simply sighed and fell quiet once more. Peregrine knew he was bored and wanted in on the action, but she would much rather keep that ace hidden up her sleeve if possible.

    The dragon had caught on to her strategy of flying away from its head, and she almost didn't see the spiked tail swiping at her from below. A quick roll to the side was enough to get out of the way, and she flew down to get below the creature to make herself an even more annoying target. As soon as she got far enough to see its underbelly, she started hurling quick blasts of the same blue energy as quickly as she could, aiming to irritate rather than injure. There was another rumbling from the beast, this time not a laugh, and she chalked it up as a win. She expected the dragon to flail and try to get at her, but instead it turned and started flying toward the center of the city. As it went, the rumbling culminated into one word, spoken loud enough that she winced at the pain of it hitting her ears.


    Peregrine just stared after the dragon for a long second, trying to rein in her temper. Nobody had ever dismissed her like that, and she wasn't at all happy about it. “Fine.” She muttered the word out loud to herself. “Give me time now, then. Ass.” She lifted both her hands, flapping her wings in little flutters to remain mostly steady in the air, and started gathering power again. This time it was not the blue of raw magical force that build up in her palms, but rather silver light that jumped and crackled like contained lightning. The bolts that jumped off the magic building in her hands would have done her serious harm, but they were attracted to the special weave of metal built into the long sleeves of her shirt. It was a metal mesh, magitech made to capture and disperse this very energy, and all of her clothing had something like it. She never knew when she would need fight someone seriously, and she'd always thought it was best to embrace paranoia over being unprepared.

    The power built and built and built as the dragon flew toward the Glass Spire. Peregrine could feel the grounding mesh growing hot against her skin, but she pressed on for a few seconds more, a bit longer than was safe, and she knew she'd pay for it with painful burns on her arms. That was fine. She just wanted to be damn sure she hurt this damned dragon. She went on for another second and the voice in her head grumbled in warning, and only then did she finally release the spell. The magic expanded as it raced forward, going from two palm-sized orbs to two spheres that were each easily thirty feet across, and they swirled around one another in a spiral as they raced forward. The last time she'd put this much power into an attack she had damn near killed herself with it, and she'd been a hundred feet away from the pack of trolls that had been feasting on the corpse of a horse she had liked more than most people.

    It seemed like the dragon didn't even see it coming. It just kept on flying, moving slower than the balls of silver lightning, apparently intent on getting to the Glass Spire. At the last second, just before they would have hit, the dragon spun in the air, far quicker than anything its size should have been able to do, and simply batted the magic downward with a wing. Peregrine saw it make contact, but she only made out what could have been a fairly small burnt patch on the wing or may have been a black spot that was already there. She only stared at that for a brief moment, because her eyes were drawn down to the ground.

    The magic had not been dispersed by the wing slap, just deflected. Peregrine looked in time to see it colliding with a building, plowing through it like a fist through wet paper, and keep on going until it made contact with something more solid than wood and people, probably the foundation of the building. That was when it exploded, forming two overlapping domes of silver light with their peaks only a few feet apart, and in total the blast was a good two hundred and fifty feet across. Everything it hit directly was obliterated, and buildings for a good distance around it were blown to pieces if they were of the old style, whereas the magitech reinforced buildings simply toppled over or tilted precariously before their magical supports reacted to the stress and pulled in power to counteract the pushing force. She estimated that, depending on occupancy levels of the buildings, there were likely at least fifty dead, probably closer to a hundred, and twice that number injured. She stared at the cloud of dust that she knew must be masking a deep crater where buildings had once been. So many lives ruined by her hand, unintentionally or not. It was awful, it was...

    Peregrine.” The voice in her head spoke up, gentle but firm. “You don't have time to mourn and beat yourself up right now. Tens of thousands will die if we don't stop that monster. Hate yourself later, we have work to do.

    “Right. Okay.” Peregrine looked up from the devastation to see the giant dragon smashing its way through the Glass Spire, then breathing fire down on the ground nearby. Her sight was still enhanced by the spell she'd used earlier, and looking down she could see a few men in guard uniforms fleeing from the flames. They must have been setting up to fire weapons at the dragon, but it got to them first. She had to hope Rhea wasn't among the dead, and that she would be smarter about sending in further troops to attack this thing. Some kind of strange light was forming around the broken edges of the Glass Spire, but she dismissed it as discharge from the magitech supports that had held the tall structure upright. She hoped they wouldn't explode, but there was no time to worry about it.

    “Let's go kill that bastard.” She spoke it aloud, but it was directed to the voice in her head. It said nothing, but she felt it was ready and determined. Peregrine flew toward the dragon, steeling herself for a fight that in the depths of her heart she knew she could not win, not even with help of the little voice in her head.

    Panic and chaos gripped the people in and around the Grand Cathedral. That was good. Not as good as it could and should have been, had everything gone according to plan, but it could be worked with. Neos frowned down through one of the stained glass windows high in the building, looking at the crowd of frantic people milling about in the plaza just outside. It had looked so good, the guards had showed up just like they had been informed, and everything was set to turn things into a bloodbath despite the orders to keep the peace. But then the guards had been pulled away suddenly, minutes before the fun was to begin. The plan was ruined, and yet...

    Neos looked up in time to see the Glass Spire being smashed by the dragon attacking the city. He'd felt rather than seen Lady Peregrine's spell get deflected into the ground, and that would make for some lovely material to use against her later, perhaps even better than her guards ending up slaughtering innocents. This was death and destruction by her own hands, more or less, and that would be powerful indeed in the minds of the common people. Her apparent inability to fend off the dragon would also do a lot to dispel the mythos of power that surrounded her. Never mind the fact that anyone even having the balls to stand up to that creature had to be sickeningly powerful to begin with, seeing her like a fly trying to take down a horse would make many stop looking at her as a god-like figure.

    There was, however, the damnable problem of the giant dragon destroying Gencha. All of his plans would be for naught if everyone died. He was so very close to perfecting his skills, and he would need many people to use to gain the power he desired. As much as the idea of crushing Lady Peregrine like an insect pleased him, and as much as he would love to see the dragon do just that, he needed more time and he would never get it if the dragon won this fight. He knew a sneer was plastered on his face as he turned away from the window, but as it turned out he did not even need to voice the distasteful words.

    “We need to go help fight the dragon.” Nue was lounging back in his chair, flanked by Snowball and Necropolis, looking as relaxed as ever. “That's what you were about to say, yes? Very well. I'm sure I can have our writer friend make a fine tale out of this.” He twirled a clawed finger through the air, mimicking writing. “Lady Peregrine fails to defend the city, Lord Nue saves the day.” It was quite difficult for a Lycan, with their wolfish faces, to smile without it looking like a vicious snarl. Nue did not succeed, but then the predatory look was rather fitting. “Bring these two along. I'll head to the basement and wait it out. Try not to die out there.”

    Neos nodded, sizing up the two guardians who had been offered to him for this foolish task. Nue probably wouldn't want them killed, so they would need to acquire some others for the plan he had in mind. His sneer softened into a more pleased expression as he realized this was an unparalleled opportunity to test his methods, the very first live field test of the culmination of his life's work. “Of course, death would be far too irritating a delay to bother with. Make sure your pet scribe doesn't mention me in his nonsense when this is done.”

    Neos headed for the door, motioning for the lackeys to follow. Nue looked confused by the comment about death, but that was fine. Leaving the lord with a little doubt about the extent of his capabilities was a good thing. Death would indeed be merely a setback, and letting slip that bit of information would keep Nue from acting rashly after his own goals were achieved and he had no more immediate need for the wizard.

    But that was something to think about later. For now, he needed to find some willing sacrifices and see about blasting a giant dragon out of the sky.

    Crystal wasn't sure how long he had stood there staring, but it had to be at least a few minutes. After the Glass Spire was shattered, something had began shooting magic at the thing, or rather someone he supposed. They were flying around the dragon and pelting it with attacks, but nothing seemed to work. A few times he saw blasts of energy fly up from the ground to meet the dragon as well, but those seemed just as ineffectual.

    As he had stood watching, something built inside of him, some feeling he could not name. Others had joined him and Kimberlyn, but rather than standing there the whole time they had hurried back into the armory to gather more things with greater haste. Most of them seemed to have the idea that getting the hell out of the city as fast as possible was the best plan, and Crystal could understand that. He wished he had never made this plan, and that he hadn't been anywhere near Gencha tonight, but now that he was here...

    Resignation. That was the feeling he'd been having trouble naming. He knew he had to do something other than run away. He had to help, and that was a damned scary prospect given the situation. Crystal looked over to Kimberlyn. She was no longer pointing, but her scales still glowed bright red. “I have to go fight that dragon.” It sounded painfully stupid when he said it, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew them to be true.

    “Okay.” Kimberlyn didn't seem at all phased by the suicidal pronouncement. “I'll go with you. Maybe some of the others will too, if you ask them.”

    Crystal nodded. It didn't take a genius to know that whatever was happening to her, it had something to do with that dragon, so she had reason to want to go as well. She knew a bit of fire magic, so at least she would be able to do something to try to attack the monster. The others though? He didn't want to drag them into it, but the fact of the matter was that they were going to need all the help they could get. With a resigned sigh, he nodded again and headed into the armory.

    Piles of gear littered the first room, and a few people were flipping through books and stacks of paper that had been hauled to a table. A couple people were testing out their new magitech goods. The one thing that surprised him was a face he did not recognize: a dwarf, bald-headed but with a large black beard that made up for it, who was currently tied to a chair and looking rather surly about it. Halaster was talking to him, though it must not have been going well since he was holding a knife to the dwarf's throat.

    “So, who's our new friend?” Crystal walked up and patted Halaster on the shoulder, very purposely jostling the knife-wielding hand away from the dwarf's throat.

    “There's a little workshop in this armory, but the door locked from the outside. He was hiding in it, but he refuses to talk.” Halaster looked like he wanted to threaten the dwarf with the knife again, but the hand on his shoulder seemed to get the message across. “He's all yours.” He slid the knife back into a sheathe in his belt and headed for the back rooms, probably to go join the looting.

    Crystal sighed and looked to the dwarf, putting on his light and friendly tone of voice. “What's your name, pal?”

    The dwarf looked surprised. “Oh, so now I get someone askin', eh? Couldn't have come before the dagger and the demands, eh? Pfft.” He spit off to the side, seeming not to notice the bits of moisture that didn't make it past his bristly facial hair. “Name's Neb. Go on, ask the next question.” Neb seemed tense, like he was ready to pounce and attack something, and from the determined set of his eyes it seemed the fact that he was tied up wasn't much of a problem for him.

    Crystal played along. “Why were you-” He didn't even get a chance to finish asking the question before the dwarf exploded.

    “BECAUSE I WAS A FUCKING PRISONER, GODS DAMN IT!” Crystal calmly wiped flecks of spittle from his face as Neb sucked in a deep breath. “Damned idiot with the knife thought I was some kinda guard. Guard? Hah! Used to be I was known round this city by everyone who was anyone. Seems you get in one little fight and kill a couple idiots and people forget you! Worse, they make you a damned slave. Fuckers, the lot of 'em. Makin' me work on these piddly toys, like I'm some kinda pissant tinker working out of a traveling forge. Y'know I was the head magitechnician, and aye I invented that word meself, never caught on but fuck it, it's a good word so I use it, but anyway I was the guy in charge of makin' sure these assholes and their tall buildings could stay up? Nobody could figure out the trick before I came along. Airships? Used to be primitive bullshit, aye, could barely get off the ground. Then who came along and made 'em what they are today? Neb did, damn it. And now they make me work on swords. Swords.”

    Crystal wasn't sure why Neb had so much disgust packed into the word, but then he wasn't sure about a lot of things the dwarf had said. He'd figured out enough to put some pieces together though. “So, Neb, you work with magitech then. I take it you know how all these things in the armory work. Did you help build the Glass Spire? If that was one of my pieces, I'd be damn proud of it, that's for sure.”

    “Hah! Proud, aye, damn straight I am! That one was a tricky bugger. Glass doesn't want to take much weight, so the trick was to make something stronger'n glass look like normal glass, then give it the same ole leyline reinforcement as the normal stone buildings, just with more juice to keep it steady. That was my work, sure enough, my crowning achievement. That mad king, what's his face, one who had it built, he was a big fan of my work. Shame about him going bonkers at the end there, but what can you do?” Neb looked around at the piles of armor and weapons that were steadily growing larger as people brought more goods out from the back rooms. “And this crap? Sure, I know how they work. I designed half of 'em myself, and the other half is trash that ain't worth carrying. I smell a deal in the offing, friend.” The rambling and angry dwarf had turned suddenly amiable, and a toothy grin was visible through his beard.

    “I hope we do become friends, Neb.” Crystal returned the smile, trying to hide his excitement. Gear was one thing, but gaining an ally who actually made magitech? He couldn't even think of the possibilities at the moment, else he would get too distracted to think clearly about more important matters. “You tell us how the good stuff works, and show us what's good and what isn't your craftsmanship on display, and you're free to go. If you want a life away from guards and such, we'd be happy to have you join our little group of friends. Oh, and you should know that the Glass Spire was just destroyed a few minutes ago, and I'm planning to go help fight the thing that did it. Thought you might be interested in helping out.”

    “Bullshit.” Neb spat to the side again. “That thing was built stronger'n steel. It'd take a hell of a lot of power just to crack it, much less destroy it.”

    “You heard that loud noise before, I'm sure.” The dwarf nodded, so Crystal continued. “That was a huge dragon passing overhead. I'd guess its head was far larger than an airship. It slapped the Spire and knocked the top half off like it was snapping a twig.”

    “Nahhh, you're fuckin' with me.” There was a note of worry and doubt in Neb's voice, and he stared at the Kitsune standing before him, looked him in the eyes for a long few seconds of silence. The truth shone through, and the blood drained from the dwarf's face. “Ah fuck. That'd do it, I suppose. And you want to go help fight the thing?” Crystal simply nodded, remaining silent. Neb squirmed against the ropes, frowning and growling under his breath, and that explosive energy quickly returned to him. “I'M COMIN' TOO, AIN'T GONNA LET NO FUCKIN' DRAGON GET AWAY WITH SMASHIN' MY MASTERPIECE!”

    Crystal grinned, and looked up to the folks who were arrayed around the room. He saw Halaster there looking at a pair of daggers that had a thread of glowing blue material across the edge, and Daz and Kara fiddling with something that looked like a gauntlet covered in small orange marbles, and others mostly looking at equipment but all of them very obviously paying attention to the conversation that had been taking place. Their expressions ranged from eager to afraid, but he had a feeling that most of them had already decided that they would not let their friend and leader go face a city-wrecking dragon alone. Kimberlyn had been wrong: he hadn't even needed to ask. He wiggled his fingers and a glowing golden knife appeared in his hand, which quite easily sliced through the rope holding Neb to the chair. Addressing the room at large, he stood and tossed the knife away, letting it dissipate into sparkles of light before striking anything.

    “Well then, folks. You heard our new friend here. Let's go help him get some vengeance on that dragon.”

    The sound of many boots stomping in unison followed Kitti, and it was rather unnerving. She'd had nightmares like this, where legions of unseen pursuers marched after her. The real world version was at once less scary and more terrible. Just as she had been leaving the inn, a group of those out of uniform soldiers had been ambling by, not even seeming to notice the flares in the sky, and headed in the wrong direction entirely. Although technically she had no rank, Kitti managed to pull rank on them. She'd gone with Lady Peregrine enough times to look over the troops (to make sure they knew their leader was a real person and not just some faceless ruler, she'd said) that most of the men recognized her quickly enough. It probably helped that she also mentioned there was something huge and dangerous coming for the city and they were needed immediately.

    And now she was running ahead of a growing column of soldiers and guards, with Rhea keeping pace at her side. The group of twenty had quickly gathered more along the way, and soon enough they found Rhea heading out to find some of those very men. She'd seemed both confused and impressed with Kitti's wherewithal to bring in the soldiers after just seeing distress flares, and she had taken over command and sent some men and women off to gather anyone else they could find and order them back to the Glass Spire. As they were sent off, Kitti heard a dull thudding noise from back in that direction, and she'd turned around in time to see the Spire being smashed.

    Kitti was unsure what exactly she was going to do against a giant dragon, but something pulled her there regardless. It was like resignation and determination had joined forced to smother her fear and doubt, and frankly she was surprised that they were winning, but she didn't want to think too hard on that lest the balance shift. She had no magic, no skill with weapons of any kind, and she would probably just get in the way when those around her started fighting... but that didn't stop the feeling that she needed to be there to avert some kind of disaster.

    So on she ran, eyes on the dragon and the person she knew to be Lady Peregrine flying around it blasting it with all sorts of magic, hoping that she would indeed be able to do something to help her.

    The fight was not going well. Peregrine got the sense that the dragon was growing irritated by her pestering attacks, and for some reason it seemed to want to focus on looked at the broken Spire. She was unsure why, though perhaps it was just fascinated by the odd magical discharge that was still glowing along the broken edges, but whenever it got too complacent with her efforts she started shooting more precise bolts of energy at its eyes. It was hard to say if they were actually a vulnerable point it needed to protect or it was just annoyed by its vision being obscured, but either way that seemed to be enough to get the dragon to focus on her for a bit and make a couple swipes at her. Oddly enough, the rounds of attacks from groups of guards and soldiers seemed to annoy it even more, such that it breathed fire in their direction. Any one of her attacks should have had more force behind it than a dozen shots from the weapons those on the ground wielded, so it made little sense to her that a few bolts of fire from below would earn retaliation.

    It was all a waste of effort. Peregrine knew it was never going to do anything to stop the dragon, but then that was never the intent. She was buying time, as loathe as she was to admit it to herself. The more time the dragon was busy with her, the more time the people of Gencha would have to flee, and the more time there would be for Rhea to bring more guards and soldiers to help. No matter the lack of logic in it, it seemed the magitech weaponry had some kind of effect, so she had to hope that hundreds of them firing at once would harm the dragon. She still had an ace up her sleeve, but so long as the dragon remained fixated on the broken Spire then she was inclined to hold that back and wait to make a combined assault with those on the ground.

    As she swooped in for another attack at the beast's eye, something flickered in the air above the shattered Spire. Peregrine pulled away quickly, worried it might be something of the dragon's doing, but then she noticed it was pulling back as well. The flickering came again, and again, then the silver light that had been building along the broken edges shot up into the air and writhed in a mess of glowing chaos for a moment before snapping into a recognizable shape. A person, standing tall enough to tower over the dragon and the city itself, and it had eyes of silver fire that somehow Peregrine could tell were locked onto the monster now holding steady in the air in front of its knees.

    “Ahh, validation. I've always loved being right.”

    Peregrine knew that voice, unnaturally loud and booming though it was, and it sent a cold shiver down her spine. It seemed the giant silver figure was no simple image, for it looked her way and recognized her. He looked just like she had last seen him in person, not the aged and withered creature she heard he had become.

    “Peregrine! It's been so long.” The avatar of Jorick looked down at her, a smug smile on his face. “You thought I was crazy, but here we are. I hope you've figured it out by now. 'Destruction incarnate rains fury upon the treasure of the ages.' Sound familiar?” A vast silver hand motioned to the dragon. “Allow me to introduce the Lord of Destruction, chief among those dark gods you thought were naught but myth and legend. Seems he's taken a nasty form indeed, but this is far from the worst he can do. I hope now you're willing to heed my warnings.”

    She wanted to ask questions, chief among them how in the hell he was there in that form when she knew for sure that he was dead, but the words were stuck in her throat. Had she been wrong, all those years ago? It had all been so clear to her, and yet... This dragon being a god would make sense of its vast power, and she had to admit that this looked a hell of a lot like fulfillment of that line of the prophecy. She didn't even get a chance to respond, for an angry rumbling filled the air before she managed to find any words.

    The rumbling coalesced into a blast of dragonfire that tore through the silver giant's torso, leaving a hole that did not seem to bother it in the slightest. “Where is it?” The dragon's voice was loud enough to match the words from the image of Jorick, despite being a fraction of its size. “Enough of this foolish trickery. You're dead, you've lost, where is the sword?”

    Jorick's silver lips parted in a savage grin. “You mean this?” A blade appeared in his hand, looking far more real than the man holding it. It was a simple thing: a straight blade with black runes etched into its length, a crossguard of curved dark grey metal that matched the spherical pommel, and a handle that looked to be roughly wrapped in worn leather. Even so, Peregrine felt a sense of power from the thing, something much akin to the feeling of might she got from the dragon itself but far more intense. The avatar of Jorick stabbed the blade at the dragon, and Peregrine expected it to not react at all, for it was clearly another figment of magic conjured up in the same way as the image of the man himself, and yet...

    The dragon, the Lord of Destruction, flailed desperately out of the way of the blade. It was not at all graceful, clearly an instinctual move fueled by fear. The avatar of Jorick laughed cruelly at its movements and the sword disappeared. “It's not here, you fool. Do you think I would make a beacon of its hiding place? This was a distraction, and you fell for it so very easily, just like you'll fall for the trail of falsehoods I've laid before you. By the time you get through them all the Godslayer will be in the hands of a new champion of life, and they will destroy you and your brood once and for all.”

    That earned another irritated growl and a blast of fire that ripped through the silver form's left thigh. “I look forward to wiping your kind off the face of the earth. You were a mistake, and I will correct it. Your foolish games will not save anyone. This city will be the first to fall, and then I will hunt down every last one of your people so they can join you in death to watch the ruination of your legacies. No sword will stop my wrath.”

    The great silver face of Jorick stretched into a grin, almost childlike in its pure delight. “Oh, but it will. I hope you remember those words when you are unmade, Lord of Destruction.” His eyes of flame swept past the dragon, scanning over the city, and after a few moments his chest shook with a sudden laugh. “But if you thought we would leave all our hopes to a single sword, then you underestimate us. If you haven't already felt the tricks hidden in our magitech weaponry, you'll understand soon enough. We also took the liberty of turning some of your own creations against you. You shall see soon enough. This city will survive you.”

    Peregrine had just been flying there silently, watching everything unfold and trying to process all this new information and reconcile it against what she thought she had known of the world. Jorick's burning eyes turned toward her though, and she was very surprised to see something that looked pleasant on his face when he did so. She had cast him out of the city and empire he had built, and had apparently gotten in the way of his plans, so she would have expected him to hate her. And yet...

    “Peregrine.” He inclined his head toward her, now totally ignoring the dragon. “This spell won't last much longer. I can see you've done well taking care of the city in my absence. You have allies and enemies coming to help you win this fight, and you will need it. Survival is victory here, so don't do anything stupid. The people will need a strong leader to pull them together after this fight is done, and it should be you. Heed the prophecy and everything will be fine.”

    “But-” Her confused objection was cut off immediately.

    “The past is the past. Securing the existence of a future in which you may regret the past is more important than anything else now.” The silver form began to shimmer and fade, and the avatar of Jorick began to rapidly fade from the legs upward. “Now do one last favor for me and get this piece of shit out of my city.” The last of the figure faded away along with those last words, leaving Peregrine and the dragon alone in the sky once more. She wished she could take some time to process everything, but she knew that would have to come later.

    The Lord of Destruction roared, a rage-filled bellow followed by a blast of fire directed down at the Glass Spire, much fiercer than anything he'd done before. In mere seconds the remaining half of the tower was melted down to slag by the fierce heat. Peregrine flicked a finger up toward her face and felt the pain in her ears go away at once, though the small trickles of blood from burst ear drums were still there and mildly irritating. She followed it up with another quick hand motion to form more permanent shielding around her ears to prevent that from happening again. By the time she was done, the dragon was flying away from her and the demolished tower.

    I think now would be an appropriate time.” The voice was mild and monotone, but Peregrine could tell he was impatient. Whatever Jorick, or his ghost or whatever the hell that been, had said about help coming, she couldn't count on it to materialize. She had to use everything at her disposal to try to stop this dragon. The voice was able to sense her determination. “Good. Let's go, then.

    Peregrine flew after the Lord of Destruction and struggled to stay silent as she say him let loose another blast of fire at the ground, this time aiming for the buildings themselves rather than anyone on the ground. She flew up to get above him, and still he paid her no attention. She hoped he would regret it. Once she was directly above him, perhaps a hundred feet of distance between them, she held her right hand down with fingers splayed and palm pointed directly at the red and black dragon. As she looked down upon her foe she could see a couple groups of people rushing in their direction on the streets. There would be no keeping this secret any longer, but that loss would be worth it if this worked. Peregrine drew in a deep breath and called out the name of her secret guardian, the source of the knowledge that had propelled her to such great power among mortals.


    A portal opened beneath her feet, a glowing green disc that she knew from the side would look as thin as paper. It was a doorway into what Gryal had called a space between worlds, a hidden place that even Peregrine did not quite understand. A vast shape fell from the portal, moving at incredible speeds, and in the blink of an eye it was free and the portal snapped shut. A green dragon, perhaps a quarter the size of the Lord of Destruction and still massive for a dragon at that, plummeted downward with its wings ducked back. The larger dragon didn't even have time to react before a blast of fire raked its back, followed closely by teeth and claws. The Lord of Destruction roared, and this time it sounded like pain. Peregrine could see that the fire had been very effective, though the more physical impacts seemed to do little to the thick scales except where the fire had burned them away.

    The dragons twisted in the air, wrestling for supremacy, and in short order the larger dragon won. He caught Gryal by a leg, claws digging into the green dragon's flesh and drawing out a pained roar. Peregrine fired a blast of simple energy at the burned patch on the larger dragon's back and was rewarded with another pained noise. Gryal was able to tug himself free, with thick, black blood dripping down his front left leg, but he went back to fighting immediately. Peregrine couldn't find many opportunities to get attacks in, for while the Lord of Destruction was largely impervious to her abilities she knew Gryal was not quite so resilient. She called out to him through their mental connection and told him how effective the fire had been, but he could not respond as he focused on staying alive, and she could see it would be hard for him to make much use of his breath attack while engaged in close combat.

    Others, however, did not find such troubles from the ground. Peregrine heard a familiar voice calling out in stiff and clipped words, and she looked down to see Rhea pointing her sword up toward the dragon. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men and women behind her were holding magitech weapons up. Kitti was standing there as well, and for a moment their eyes met. Peregrine wanted to tell her to flee, to get to safety, but instead she gave the woman a brief smile. Whatever her reasons for rushing to battle, loyalty and friendship must have had something to do with it, so Peregrine would be kind about telling her not to be stupid in the future. Rhea called out the order to fire, and the air was filled with streaks of energy from the tips of lances and swords and weapons that looked like crossbows lacking the bow components, lines of every color under the sun, and most of them struck the Lord of Destruction's underside. The guards and soldiers were trained for accuracy, and only a couple of the shots hit Gryal while perhaps ten went wide entirely.

    Gryal did not seem all that harmed, but the larger dragon shrieked even louder than he had when Gryal's fire struck him. The Lord of Destruction flailed and threw the green dragon away, and quickly he turned to return the assault on the new threat. A thick gout of fire blasted toward the ground... and struck something in mid-air, something invisible that held the fire at bay. Rhea had one hand held upward, and Peregrine knew that the woman was the source of the shield. She was a master of the sword, but her true power came from a talent for a rare form of magic that was undetectable by all but the most sensitive magic users; even Peregrine, for all her might, could not sense it, and the sheer terrifying power of such an ability had been her reason for making a close ally of the woman many years ago. The stream of fire suddenly split in two, and the invisible force causing the split rushed forward and struck the dragon in the face. That was enough to make it stop breathing fire, but it didn't seem to have any effect otherwise.

    Ineffectual though the strike had been, it worked well as a distraction. The soldiers fired again as Gryal struck from the side, using this opportunity to breath some of his own fire at the Lord of Destruction. Again, cries of pain followed, and they spurred the massive dragon to greater ferocity. It spun around in the air, spitting fire again, and managed to catch Gryal in the full blast. The screech of pain that followed was horrifying for Peregrine, but even worse was seeing the green dragon falling from the sky covered in black soot. Pain and fury filled her in that moment, shattering the calm she had been trying to maintain throughout the fight. She wanted to go to Gryal, but she knew there was nothing that could be done for him in the heat of battle; the massive dragon was swooping down toward the soldiers, and they were going to be slaughtered if he wasn't stopped. Peregrine funneled her anger into another spell, the same balls of silver lightning that had been deflected before, but she knew exactly how to make sure that did not happen again. This time there was no voice in her head to urge caution, so she would throw caution to the wind and do what needed to be done.

    Kimberlyn ran along with the others in a strange daze, her scales still glowing just as brightly as when they had started. She was aware of everything around her, intensely so in fact, but it all felt muted. She was certain there was another group racing along a street parallel to theirs, three willing and two being forced along, and she knew the ones being forced would soon die. She also knew what was happening in the fight, like she could see it all, but thanks to the buildings all around them she could really only see glimpses of the dragons in the air now and then. It was very strange, but at the same time she knew the reason for all of this. As fuzzy as her brain felt, it was like there was something lurking behind the scenes feeding her answers and information, and somehow she knew it all to be true.

    One thing they had definitely seen was the huge silver man appearing in the sky. His voice, and the responses from the Lord of Destruction, had been loud enough that Kimberlyn supposed (or rather, knew, as a fact given from that mysterious new part of her mind) the whole city had heard it. There was a lot of strange and interesting things about that conversation, but one part above all others stuck out to her. The silver giant had looked around, and she was certain that it had looked directly at her for a moment, and then it had said something about turning creations against the dragon. It clicked in her mind, just like all the other things she didn't understand how she suddenly knew them, but it was a rock-solid certainty. She was the product of... whatever had been done. That part was unclear, but Kimberlyn knew it was the cause of her strange new thoughts and this glowing and probably other things that would become apparent soon.

    “The green dragon has fallen. Not dead, yet.”

    The words came from her mouth, but they surprised her for she hadn't thought about speaking them. Crystal, running beside her, gave her a sidelong glance but said nothing. Kimberlyn had been keeping them all updated on the fight in this way, the sudden pronouncements of events, and they had all stopped asking her questions around the time she said Lady Peregrine had summoned a dragon; after they saw it in the air for themselves they knew she was speaking the truth, and since she had to answers as to how she knew it they had stopped asking. Neb, their new dwarven friend, was keeping up with their pace despite his shorter legs and was constantly muttering under his breath. Kimberlyn could hear it perfectly, but she wished she couldn't, for the dwarf had a rather vile mouth. Part of it seemed to be about magitech weapons, something about how the dwarf should have seen what some certain part of them was really meant to do.

    “It's going after the soldiers. They don't stand a chance.”

    They were nearing the battle, and as they turned a corner they saw it happening a couple hundred feet in front of them. The Lord of Destruction slammed to the ground in the midst of the soldiers, smashing many of them immediately. Those remaining fired their weapons in retaliation, but it wasn't enough. The dragon breathed fire down the street, out of their view, but Kimberlyn saw it clearly enough: the street had been packed tight with soldiers, and now they were dead. Its tail flailed through the street behind it, and many more died that way. A handful of those very near where the dragon had landed survived the attack, but otherwise only about a dozen who had gotten behind Rhea's shielding power were saved from the crushing tail.

    The other group that Kimberlyn had sensed emerged in front of them, much closer to the dragon, and turned toward it. Something about the man leading that group unsettled her. A small Felis woman was dragging a man forward with a paw clamped tight on his wrist, and a lanky man holding a clay jug and walking like a marionette puppet with its strings cut was dragging another man. The leader stopped perhaps fifty feet away from the dragon, which was now stomping on the remaining soldiers near where it had landed, and motioned his companions forward. They did so, each voicing objections, but he silenced them. Their prisoners were brought forward, and the man clamped a hand on each of their throats. In seconds the men went from lively and struggling people to withered husks, like all the liquid had been sucked out of them and they had been left out in the sun in the desert for a year. The man who had killed them, Kimberlyn heard the Felis calling him Neos when she asked what in the world he had done, was now visibly full of some kind of new energy. Wispy black lines like smoke curled and twisted all around him, and Kimberlyn could sense the two dead men in it, their life forces mingled together. Crystal and some of the others had seen the whole thing, and they cried out in disgust and anger, but still they kept on running forward.

    Neos rolled his shoulders and apparently ignored all the objections. He rubbed his hands together, then held the right one out toward the dragon. The Lord of Destruction felt something amiss, clearly, since it started flapping its wings to try to lift into the air. A thick black bar shot forth from Neos's hand, dark as the heart of midnight, like no light could ever hope to touch it. It slammed into the dragon's side, then immediately sliced upward. The warlock growled and clamped his left hand over his right wrist, forcing the beam of energy downward. It shook and wobbled as it moved, and it ripped a ragged path through the Lord of Destruction's wings. Kimberlyn could see a smoking wound torn through its side as well, and where the magic had missed the beast it had torn through buildings behind it for hundreds of feet. The black magic faded before it could be brought down to strike the body of the beast again, but plenty of damage had been done. The Lord of Destruction was trying to roar in pain, but it was weak and much quieter than it had been before.

    That did not mean it was no longer dangerous. It spun around, using its girth to crush buildings in its way, and sought the source of its pain. The dark energy around Neos had faded. He looked to his companions, then back to the group of outlaws approaching from behind. Kimberlyn could see the calculation on his face: he wanted to use some of them as a source of more energy, but in seeing them all bristling with weapons, and seeing her in particular with a strange magical glow of her own, he gave up on the idea. Instead he motioned to the man and Felis and they darted back down a side street, out of the gaze of the dragon and leaving the path clear for the outlaws to make their own attack. Unfortunately, that meant the dragon was also looking at them, and he seemed rather angry. Its maw opened and an orange glow built up inside its throat, but as the fire shot forth it met another shield. Kimberlyn could see it there, hanging in the air like glittering dust, and it deflected the fire so it slammed into the buildings to the side rather than the group of outlaws.

    The remaining soldiers emerged from a side street as they passed, and their leader had her hand held up, keeping the shield in place. She looked over the outlaws with an annoyed frown, which only grew deeper when she saw Neb. “You broke into an armory, I see. Normally I would arrest the lot of you, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I hope you know how to use them.”

    “Aye, they sure as fuck do.” Neb spat on the ground, sneering at the woman. “Count yourself lucky I've got me a bigger debt to settle, else I'd be after your head for locking me up. Truce to deal with the dragon?”

    Rhea sighed, shaking her head. “Truce, until the dragon is dealt with. Lady Peregrine may even feel generous enough to pardon all of your crimes if you make yourself useful.”

    Crystal perked up at that. “Blanket forgiveness, hm? That sounds like a good deal to me. Hear that, folks? Let's kill this dragon and get some royal pardons!” The outlaws, most of them criminals and fugitives of one kind of another, let out a round of cheers. Rhea looked like she wanted to say something more, but she just kept her mouth shut as her frown grew deeper. Kimberlyn knew why, again with that strange new sense of knowledge in her: Rhea had been intending it as an empty promise for Neb, but Crystal had deftly swooped in to make it all-inclusive, and they both knew that if the group actually did manage to prove useful in this fight then they would very likely be able to wrangle pardons out of Lady Peregrine. They would be heroes of the city, and punishing them would not be tolerated by the people.

    The Lord of Destruction growled and stalked forward, crushing buildings as it came. Apparently it had decided to take the same approach with them as with the soldiers. Buildings three stories tall didn't even scrape its stomach, but all fell before its smashing claws nonetheless. Neb called out for everyone to fire their weapons while retreating, and they did just that. Most of them were holding things Neb had called guns, metal barrels with wooden handles, and they shot out thick streams of red light that slammed into the dragon. They seemed to hurt it, but did nothing to stop it. Rhea held her hands up and another shimmering wall appeared before it, but where it could stop dragonfire it was helpless against the sheer weight of the dragon. It was bearing down on them, and it seemed for all their valor there was nothing they would be able to do.

    “But there is something you can do.”

    Kimberlyn flinched as she heard the voice. Somehow she knew it was something only she could hear, even though it sounded like it came from someone standing just beside her. The Lord of Destruction, however, seemed to notice something was amiss. It roared something, words that were unfamiliar to her, but she understood them anyway: “You will regret showing yourself, Unseen Lord.”

    The invisible speaker seemed amused, and he said nothing in response. Instead, he spoke to Kimberlyn again. “Did you know the greatest weakness of a dragon is dragonfire? Very curious. These weapons, these things you call magitech, they generate a close cousin to dragonfire, metaphysically speaking. I suppose they were intended to fight minions, but when a god takes a shape, that shape is true in all ways. What curious luck we have that he chose the shape of a dragon. Dragonfire is the key. Hurry now.” Though there was no sense of movement, Kimberlyn knew the speaker had disappeared once more.

    She had no idea what in the world he had been talking about... but she did. That new part of her mind picked up on it immediately. Without even thinking about it, her arms raised to point toward the Lord of Destruction. Normally she made throwing motions to hurl fireballs, or she pointed a finger to make a jet of flame. This time, however, her arms were extended straight forward and her wrists were pressed together. Her fingers curled inward, like she was trying to claw at the air, and power started to build in her hands. “Uh.” She looked around to her companions, confusion evident in her voice. “Duck maybe?”

    It took them a couple seconds to realize what she was talking about, but Crystal called for them all to get down, and just in time as it so happened. As those in front of her fell to their knees, fire sprang forth from Kimberlyn's hands. It was nothing like normal flame. This fire seemed almost like a liquid, thick and heavy, rather than the floaty and airy quality of normal fire. It blasted into the Lord of Destruction, now a mere ten feet away from stomping them all flat, and it stopped him in his tracks. The fire struck him in the chest, and Kimberlyn held it there. In her strange way of seeing the fight, she had noticed how the green dragon's fire had only briefly struck the Lord of Destruction and that was enough to do a lot of damage. What, then, would happen with a constant stream of fire in one place?

    A lot of pain, apparently, given the rumbling groan from the dragon. It flapped its shredded wings, trying futilely to fly away, but all it could do was try to walk away from the attack. Rhea lifted a hand once more and the shimmering light appeared all around its mouth, making sure it would not be able to quickly retaliate. The fire seared through scale and flesh, digging deep into the Lord of Destruction as if it was seeking his heart. He twisted away, and the fire seared a line down his side, but his tail swept through the buildings and rubble heading for them all. Rhea cursed and formed a new shield, a half-circle around them that deflected tail and stone and wood but allowed the fire to go unhindered. They were left with a pile of shattered buildings leaning over them, held up only by the shield, but they were safe and they were winning.

    And then Kimberlyn's fire sputtered out. She felt drained, almost empty, and her glowing scales had returned to their normal state. She fell to one knee, breathing deeply, and looked up to see the Lord of Destruction wobbling but already growing steadier on his feet. It hadn't been quite enough, and she was out of power. There was a deep black hole in his chest, and a line of black scored all the way down his side, but it wasn't enough and they looked to be very slowly healing by themselves. Greyness pressed in on the sides of Kimberlyn's vision, and it took her a second to realize she was going to pass out. Before she did, as darkness reached up to take her, she got another inkling of something happening out of view and managed to mumble the only words she could think of to describe it.

    “Lady Peregrine is going to kill herself.”

    The words struck Kitti like shards of ice in her heart. She scrambled around, looking up to find Lady Peregrine in the sky, and it took her but a moment to see her up in the sky, or rather to see where she was. It was impossible to see the woman herself behind those two brightly glowing balls of silver lightning. They were each a couple feet wide, and Kitti had seen her use a version of that spell where balls of lightning the size of peas had expanded to be larger than watermelons. Those would be huge when they were released, but they were wild things and they had to be hurting her already. She wondered if the Dracari girl had just misunderstood, what was happening, had taken the feedback from the magic as being more dangerous than it truly was.

    Her stomach dropped as she saw Lady Peregrine dive, straight for the Lord of Destruction. Kitti knew then that the girl had been correct. There was only one reason for diving like that with such a powerful spell to hand: Lady Peregrine was going to slam it into the beast directly, and that would leave her right next to the blast herself. It was going to be a huge one as well, and not only would she die, everything within... Kitti looked around, trying quickly to figure out how large the explosion might be, but it was hard to say. Definitely large enough to kill all of them if they stayed where they were. Rhea beat her to saying it out loud.

    “Run, now!” The Hand of Justice shoved the invisible shield away, forcing the rubble that had been teetering over them to topple the other way, and then took her own advice. Most people seemed to have no idea what they were running for, but when someone like Rhea said to run you didn't stop to ask questions. Kitti was about to join them, but she looked and saw a Kitsune man with a tattoo on his face was struggling to try to drag the Dracari girl with him. Rather than saying anything stupid about leaving her behind, Kitti hurried over and helped him, hauling her up and placing one arm over her shoulder. The man caught on and did the same, and together they were able to move at a reasonable pace, but everyone else pulled far ahead of them. There was no way they were going to get out of the way in time like this.

    Kitti felt a strange feeling building up inside her. It wasn't fear or anything like it. It was closer to certainty. She'd thought she was meant to be here to save Lady Peregrine in some way, but that had been wrong. It had been her own wishful thinking, hoping she would be able to do something to repay Lady Peregrine for everything she had done. Of course she was never going to be able to do something like that for Lady Peregrine, for if she couldn't take care of herself then how would someone like Kitti be able to do anything? This though, saving this man and woman, that was something she could at least try to do. For a brief moment she thought of Rory, the strange man at the inn, and she had to wonder if he had been more than he appeared.

    “Hurry, this way.” Kitti's voice was strained and breathless, but as she turned down an alley the man didn't object and simply moved as she wished. She spotted what she wanted just ahead: cellar doors, one left ajar. It was an abandoned house, one she passed by most days on her walks through the city, and she knew that the cellar had become a den of illicit activities, but for now it just looked like salvation and safety. She hurried toward it, hoping they wouldn't be too slow, and the man caught on to her plans. They carried the Dracari girl between them and made it down a few stairs, then the Kitsune man motioned to lean her against the wall. They did so, and he hurried back up to slam the cellar door shut, and just in time it seemed.

    As the door slammed shut, another loud noise sounded from outside. A roaring sound followed, then crashing and slamming, and they heard heavy things crashing into the cellar doors. Kitti and the man dragged the unconscious girl down out of the stairwell, and they saw the doors cracking with the weight of whatever struck them. They got down to the dirt floor and pulled around the corner, taking shelter there as the door shattered and they hear rocks slamming into the stairwell. Dust and small pieces of rubble fell down into the cellar, and from outside they could still hear things falling and crashing.

    The room was dark, so Kitti reached into a pocket and pulled out her torch. It was a modern version of the old adventurer's standby, a little rod with a button on one end that could be pressed to make it light up with a white glow. Magitech weapons were nice, but Kitti always preferred the more practical applications. In the soft light she saw the Kitsune man looking at her in confusion.

    “You're the one who gave that speech, aren't you?”

    She nodded. “I'm Kitti. I gave the speech. I, uh, I think I probably wouldn't say the same things now, if I had to give another one.” It was a bit of an understatement, and the only reason she wasn't frantically trying to sort out what all of the new information meant for everything she had thought of the world was because right now survival mattered more than sorting out beliefs and ideology. She got her first clear look at the man's face, and immediately she saw what the markings on his face and his mismatched eyes formed. “Red-eyed raven.”

    The Kitsune smiled. “Yes. A birthmark, but maybe more than that, I suppose. I'm Crystal, nice to meet you.” He held out a hand, like they were meeting somewhere normal rather than huddled in a cellar trying to avoid death. Kitti shrugged and took hold of it, shaking his hand briefly before letting go.

    “I suppose we should probably talk about that prophecy at some point.” She swallowed and looked toward the stairwell, worry and fear creeping into her now that they seemed to be safe. “Later though.”

    “Later.” Crystal nodded his agreement and went to look over the passed out girl lying between them.

    It seemed he had no intention on intruding on her thoughts, and she was glad for it. Kitti leaned back against the wall and let her eyes slide shut, trying and failing to keep a tear from sliding free. It was partly relief, but mostly the first wave of grief taking her. Lady Peregrine... There was no way she could have survived such an attack. She wanted to hold onto hope, but she found herself unable to find any. Kitti sat there with her eyes closed, trying to hold herself together and vainly searching for something that would prove her certainty wrong.

    Peregrine's diving attack was far too quick for the Lord of Destruction to avoid.

    She did not want to risk it deflecting this blast, so there was only one thing to do. The crackling backlash had already scarred her arms with vicious red and black lines, totally overwhelming the protective mesh long before she'd stopped building up energy. She felt no fear, but perhaps a little regret. Jorick's shade had more or less told her to live and lead the people after this, but she wasn't going to be able to do that. Wherever he was now, she hoped he would be able to forgive her and understand why she could not do as he wished. Fulfilling that last favor he had asked was all she could do, so she would do it.

    Peregrine dove for the Lord of Destruction, hands held out straight ahead of her, wings tucked back, and aimed for the line of burnt flesh that Gryal had left there. Another pang of regret hit her then. Gryal would be alone now. He was a strange dragon, one who enjoyed mortal companionship, and he had told her many times that she was by far his favorite of all those he had met. She hoped he would understand as well, and that he would go on without her to help fight off these dark gods, as Jorick had named them. The people could benefit greatly from his wisdom, and she hoped he would not retreat into solitude after her death.

    That was Peregrine's last thought as she slammed into the Lord of Destruction. He hands sunk deep into the burnt flesh of the dragon, into holes burrowed by the powerful magic, and she got up to her elbows in the beast before the spell expanded. There was a smile on her face as the explosion took her.

    Rhea watched from behind a magical shield, not bothering to hide the sadness on her face. There was nothing she could have done to stop Lady Peregrine, but she dearly wished there had been. She watched as the Avian woman slammed into the dragon, and then the silver light expanded and swallowed her. The Lord of Destruction let out a deep bellow of pain, but it was that of a dying beast rather than the enraged screams from before. The silver lightning expanded to hollow out most of its body, and then it exploded and sent the remaining chunks flying every which way. A chunk of meat slammed into her shield, followed quickly by debris from buildings torn apart in the explosion. The outlaws and remaining guards huddled behind her for shelter, but she ignored their presence for now.

    Lady Peregrine was dead. The Glass Spire was gone. The city was torn apart, and she knew there were fires spreading elsewhere that could yet destroy the city entirely. There was no telling what had become of all the fanatics at the cathedral, but the night's events had validated their beliefs, and that could mean trouble and retaliation against those who had been whipped into a fervor against them.

    There would be a lot of pieces to pick up and get things in order, and it would be a damned tough job without Lady Peregrine there to lead them. Rhea sighed and shook her head. She would do what needed doing, and that probably meant pardoning the vagabonds behind her and making use of them as symbols of victory for people to rally around. But first, as soon as the rubble stopped flying through the air, she was going to go see if Kitti had gotten herself killed or not. She was the closest thing to a successor Lady Peregrine had ever had, and the common people, particularly those who had been wooed by her speech, would find it easy to look to her for guidance.

    Much was going to change in the coming days. She suspected that others would try to seize upon the opportunity to grab power for themselves, and a couple candidates sprung quickly to mind. The last thing Rhea wanted to do was play politics after all of this destruction and loss had torn through the city, but she would be unable to avoid it. She would do what needed to be done, for the sake of the city and to protect Lady Peregrine's legacy, but she was not going to enjoy it.

    Gwazi sat against the water pump, breathing heavily. Everyone was out with their buckets trying to combat the fires, so he had a chance to take a little break from the constant pumping. They would be back soon enough, so he had to take the chance when he had it. While everyone had expected tonight to be crazy, nobody had thought it would include a dragon and the confirmation of the prophecy as real. Gwazi had been among those who took neither side, because he figured it didn't much matter one way or the other, he just wanted to get along in life as peacefully as possible. Tonight was one night where peace wasn't possible though, so here he was well after sundown helping to put out fires. He supposed it was better than outright war in the streets between neighbors.

    “No it's not.”

    Gwazi sat bolt upright, looking around and finding nobody around. He was sure a woman had spoken, but how could that be if there was nobody nearby? “Who's there?” His words echoed into the emptiness of the dark streets. The only reply was a quiet chuckle, and then he felt something slam into his chest.

    Everything went dark for a moment, and then he was moving. That was strange. He tried to open his eyes, but nothing happened. He tried to bring his hands up to wave in front of his face, but nothing happened. He tried to yell for help, but nothing happened. Panic set in, and then he heard that same laugh.

    “Quiet in there.” It was his own voice, speaking.. to him? His eyes opened without him willing it. It seemed like he was viewing everything from a grey haze, and he still had no control over his body. “Yes, that's correct. This body is mine now.” Gwazi tried to ask what that meant, but again, he was unable to speak. The other presence seemed to get the message anyway. The stuff Gwazi could see started moving, and he realized that he must be walking... but he could feel nothing at all. No movement, no sensation of his body. All he had was his thoughts and his sight.

    “Indeed.” This time it was the feminine voice, speaking inside his mind. “I have plans, and I needed a mortal body. Yours is less than optimal, but it will suffice. Sit quietly and watch, else I'll squash you like a bug to rid myself of the annoyance.”

    Gwazi tried to ask more questions, but he could only think them, and they were a jumbled mess of fear and panic rather than clear words.

    The feminine voice laughed at him again. He could see through the strangely hazy vision that he, or rather his body, was approaching some of the people with buckets trying to put out fires. “Just be quiet and watch. You will understand shortly.”

    The people were confused by his presence, and rightly so. He heard them asking what was wrong, but the person controlling his body didn't reply. Instead they broke into a run, and as they got close to the others they made his arms move in ways that they'd never done before. It was lightning quick, so fast that Gwazi inside his own head couldn't keep track of it, but within moments all of them were dead and falling to the ground with bloody wounds in their necks. Hands filled his vision, his own hands, covered with blood. The thing controlling his body had used his hands like swords, stabbing them straight in the throat, and it had been brutally effective.

    Gwazi started trying to scream in horror, but again there was no sound, and once more he got a laugh in response. “Your body wasn't ready for that. I snapped a lot of ligaments. Ah well, that can be fixed. Now, quiet in there, or I'll hunt down your family and do worse to them.” Gwazi wasn't sure how he could be quiet when he wasn't actually making any sound, but he had to try. He focused his thoughts on his family, his mother and father and two sisters, and tried to think of them doing nothing at all, just peacefully going through their day. “Good. That will suffice. Keep thinking happy thoughts and I won't pay them a visit. Then again, they may not live long regardless, if I have my way. My plans don't allow room for survivors, you see. Oh, and you may think of me as the Lady of Chaos. You have the honor of being inhabited by a god. Enjoy the show.”

    The thing controlling his body was walking down another street, and in the distance Gwazi could see another group of people with buckets, these ones walking back toward the water pump. He desperately tried to cling to pleasant thoughts as his body broke into a run, trying as hard as he could to contain the horror and fear.

    As the small clock in the room began chiming the midnight hour, the twelve were gathered once more in a room lit by a single candle. This time, however, their leader had dispensed with her cloaking attire. She stood nearly six feet tall and wore a short black skirt and a black leather corset. One could have mistaken her for an elf, if not for three things: the thin tail ending in an arrowhead shape that was whipping back and forth behind her, the curling black horns sprouting from the midst of her fine white hair, and her glowing silver eyes. She stared at the candle with a slight frown on her face, saying nothing.

    A woman cleared her throat and spoke up. “She had a dragon. Did you know?”

    “Yes.” The reply was absent-minded and soft.

    “And you wanted us to try to kill her?”

    “Yes.” The horned woman looked up now, face blank. “Why do you think I told you to do it in the Spire? Transportation magics would not work amidst all the protections placed on it, and that includes the dragon's little trick. Do you have a problem with my methods?”

    The words were spoken mildly, but they caused the hooded woman to step back and duck her head. “No, my apologies, mistress.”

    “Good.” The leader looked around the circle. “The master's physical form was destroyed.” Her eyes stopped on one member of the circle, and her frown returned. “This is unfortunate, but not a problem, just a minor delay. He survived it unscathed. Our plans will continue with some slight alterations. You will receive new orders soon.” She took a step forward, and her tail darted out to the figure she was staring at, prodding him in the chest. “And I expect them to be followed with no deviation, this time.”

    “Yes, mistress.” The man's voice still held smugness, but it was muted now.

    The leader nodded, and her frown turned into a little smile as she stepped back to her place in the circle. “I shall no longer hide away in the dark. The end is upon us, and I mean to have some fun with it. Pretend to know nothing of me and to be horrified of my actions, of course. You will receive word if I wish to meet again. Now go.” She clapped her hands together and the doors opened. The other cultists filed out in silence.

    Though tonight had not gone as planned, she was pleased nonetheless. Lady Peregrine dying was a great boon to her, for nobody else in the city would be able to stand against her in a one on one confrontation. It had been galling for a mere mortal to give pause to the Siren of the Shadows, and if not for that dragon up her sleeve it would have been trivial to dispose of the woman personally. She was out of the way now though, and the green dragon by itself would pose no trouble, assuming it even lived through its wounds. She could feel a freed god having some fun elsewhere in Gencha, and she wanted to join in on that in her own way. It was only a matter of time until the Lord of Destruction or one of the others found the blasted sword and got rid of it so that the cleansing could be completed, and she knew she would be among those marked for destruction despite helping their plans along. That was fine, her kind had upset the balance and needed to go away. Besides, she only lived for her pleasures now, and once the Lord of Destruction reshaped the world to his desires she doubted that she would be able to have any fun anyway.

    The Siren of the Shadows left the room long minutes after the others, and for the first time in many years she emerged uncloaked into the open air. The hiding had been necessary for her plans, but now secrecy was not much of a concern for her. She strolled down the street, and soon enough came upon the light and noise of a tavern. Some mortals would of course retreat from panic into alcohol, and they were easy targets. She entered the tavern and immediately drew stares, perhaps as much for her clothing as for her horns. That was fine, she enjoyed seeing them unable to take their eyes off of her. She walked to the bar and took a seat on a stool, one on the end with only a single empty spot beside it.

    It took less than a minute for a man to take that empty stool and shoot her a hopeful grin. He asked to buy her a drink and she nodded, a little smile coming to her face. The man took that as a good sign, but of course he couldn't have known that she was imagining his innards strewn across the floor. It was so very fun playing with mortals and getting their hopes up, only to surprise them with death in the midst of passion. She so enjoyed watching pleasure turn to agony on their faces. The man introduced himself and asked for her name.

    “Call me Pahn'kaks.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice, giving it a husky and almost growling tone. “But I'll expect you to call me mistress, later.” The man clearly wasn't used to such forwardness, but after the initial shock another grin, wider and more assured, stretched his cheeks. She almost felt sorry for him: he'd just been out looking for a little fun, and he had the poor luck to be the first to work up the nerve to approach her. She would have to kill him quick out of pity, and to give her time to get through a few more before the night was over. By tomorrow she wanted to already have the city in a panic over all the unexplained murders, and this man would make a decent start.

    A quiet night fell upon the town of Eles. The frame of a new building rose in the center of it all, and there wasn't even a scrap of rubble left to be seen of the old structure. With even the wounds now treated and gone with the help of an Immortal, the only signs of the Lord of Destruction's passing remained in the hearts and minds of the people. It would not, unfortunately, remain as such.

    A raven circled down through the dark sky and landed atop the peak of the town hall in the making. He surveyed the town with gleaming red eyes, full of more intelligence than any bird had a right to. Soon enough this peaceful town would be mired in chaos once more, but this time he would be ready to do his job. He had a purpose to fulfill, the purpose he had been created for, and it would not be an exaggeration to say the fate of the world rested upon his success or failure. Jorick had created him to be both a seeker and a guide, to find one worthy and bring them up to the peak of Mother Mountain and receive the gift.

    It was too bad that the raven's presence would inevitably draw the Lord of Destruction back to this town. He was already quite fond of the place. Alas, sacrifices had to be made, and so he remained perched and waiting for death to come and sort the worthy from the worthless.
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  7. Chapter 4 – Planting Seeds

    Cold wind cut through Ozzie's clothing, but he didn't bother trying to further protect himself. He'd already thrown on more layers of clothing hours ago, but it didn't really help, so he just suffered through the night. The sun was just rising in the east, and he sat alone at the front of an airship as the land below seemed to move while he remained in place. The previous day had been very strange indeed. He hadn't really expected to live to see this sunrise, but here he was, and all he could do was wait and see what would happen.

    After Fury left, Ozzie had expected word of his power to spread and bring frightened and angry clan folk to find and kill him. The first part happened, sure enough, but the expected murderers never showed up. He saw that people who had been spiteful toward him turned frightened instead, which was entirely expected. That was as far as it went. He spent a couple hours waiting in resigned dread before things were cleared up for him.

    Grumpy had called Ozzie to his tent to explain matters to him. The walk through the camp was a very strange one: not only were there no insults and threats flung in Ozzie's direction, as he had already grown used to, but there was also a sudden influx of wildlife just coming into camp like it was normal. Bugs and birds and squirrels and rabbits and even an elk had all been peacefully wandering through the tents and few small buildings of the camp. It was a surreal sight, and Ozzie was not at all surprised to spot many others staring at the creatures in confusion.

    The de facto chief of all the northern clans had cleared up that mystery as well. He first explained that Ozzie was alive now mainly because of his decision; he had put out the word that nobody was allowed to harm Ozzie until after the prophecy business was dealt with, because his power was too great an asset to throw away. Grumpy had also casually mentioned that the animals had brought word to the various seers and sages among the clans, a simple message that many of them were able to receive in the form of visions or readings from cards or bones or blood or whatever else they used to divine secret truths of the world. The message had been a simple one: seek the Witch of the Water for guidance. The wise men and women of the clans were familiar with the name, and one among them had met her once before, so they had advised Grumpy to heed the call.

    Naturally that meant they needed airships to get to where she lived in a reasonable time. Since the clans did not actually own airships, and since Grumpy was not keen on the idea of selling off all the material wealth of his people for the sake of transportation, that lead to a bit of a problem. Luckily the problem had a simple solution: piracy. There had been half a dozen airships docked at the sole airship dock in the northern lands, so now the clans were in possession of half a dozen airships, plus crews as unwilling workers. Slavery was a practice they had abandoned many generations ago, but nobody seemed to have any moral problems with a temporary arrangement of a similar nature.

    And now they were well on their way to see the Witch of the Water. There hadn't been any problems from the hostage crews so far, probably because nobody in their right mind would cause trouble when dozens of clan warriors were hanging about making sure they stayed in line, and aside from all the fear floating around—both from the crews and from the clan folk directed at Ozzie—it had been a rather pleasant trip. The airships were dotted with insects and birds and even a few intrepid wingless animals had climbed aboard, and Ozzie couldn't help but wonder what had been done to them to make them act so unnaturally. More to the point, he wondered why they had so blatantly sought out the northern clans in specific. It was clear this Witch of the Water was behind it, but he suspected her motivations had to be less than wholesome.

    These and other thoughts had kept Ozzie up through the night, and sleep did not feel any closer now that day was arriving. Despite living through the day and having Grumpy's tentative assurance of his safety, he still felt like the dagger might plunge into his heart at any moment. He remained as he was, sat at the front of the lead airship, and kept his eyes on the horizon.

    The sun rose over the walls of Gencha to reveal a broken city. Large portions of the city were simply smashed to pieces, others had been burnt down, one section was still aflame, and much of the rest had been ravaged by looting and wanton violence. The aftermath of the attack had been less destructive, but by itself it would have constituted an unprecedented level of chaos in Gencha. It was clear that someone needed to take control of the situation to restore order. The four people who gathered in front of the ruins of the Glass Spire intended to address exactly that problem.

    Kitti was the second to arrive. She found Rhea already there, looking at the demolished structure with her face blank but her eyes full of fire. Titana and Jacob Cane showed up shortly thereafter, walking side by side, and it make Kitti wonder for what must be the hundredth time just what they were up to. Over the past month the two of them had gone from being generally apathetic toward one another to becoming seemingly the best of friends. Or perhaps more than that? Whatever their situation was, they seemed rather obviously determined to keep up their work as a pair today, and that could make things difficult.

    Rhea was the first to speak, but it was not to address the obvious question lingering over their heads. “There were some disturbing murders last night. The military will need to help patrol the streets to cover for the loss of so many guards.” Titana and Jacob were not phased by the news or the talk of military patrols. They nodded and made quick agreements to the notion.

    Kitti, however, remained quiet. Although she was worried about the possibility of the people of the city reacting negatively to soldiers marching the streets, she knew it was necessary. The grisly murders had been on everyone's lips this morning. Dozens of people had had their throats brutally torn out, apparently while they were trying to put out some of the spreading fires, and it was thought that their murders were why the fire was still going strong in that area while others had been brought under control within a few hours. The senseless madness of those murders would have been enough in normal times to make them the only thing folks were talking about, but there was another set that had a more sensational aspect that piqued the morbid interests of Gencha. Four men had been found dead around the city, three in rented rooms in taverns and an inn and the other in his own home. They were apparently found nude, with strange patterns carved into their chests with a knife, and from the deep scratches on their backs and other bits of evidence it appeared that they had been killed after having sex with their murderer.

    “What Gencha really needs,” Jacob said after a few silent seconds had passed, “is strong leadership in these difficult times.”

    There it was. Kitti had steeled herself to this, knowing it would come up, but it still felt like a punch in the gut. Lady Peregrine was gone, and here Jacob was already angling to play politics to gain power. She thought she would remain quiet and let the others hash it out, since it was really none of her business, so she was quite surprised to hear herself speak up. “Let me guess, you intend that strong leadership to come from you?” There was a biting tone to the words, and everyone looked just as surprised as Kitti felt to hear it come from her.

    “What, do you have some objection to the notion?” Jacob flashed her a sly smile, and Kitti felt something like a chill wind sweeping over her. It was odd, she'd never thought of Jacob as attractive before, but that smile... He waved a hand dismissively. “But no, not me, I would never dream of aspiring to such a lofty seat.” Jacob chuckled at his own obvious lie, and the sound sent another strange wave of coldness washing over Kitti, then he went on with something a bit more honest. “The people would never stand for it. I've angered far too many with taxes and the like, and in the wake of last night's tragic events it must be someone known to be an ally of the late Lady Peregrine. I was not renowned as such, of course.” His eyes flicked from Kitti to Rhea, then back again, and his smile grew a little broader.

    Rhea stared at him with confusion written openly on her face. “Are you suggesting I take command of the city? We've disagreed on damn near every major issue in the past year. Why would you want me to take over?” It was clear she was far from rejecting the notion, she was simply questioning his motives for the suggestion.

    Titana cleared her throat. “You've gotten the wrong idea. Neither you nor I would be accepted as leaders of the city right now. The military broadly failed to protect the people, and we would be tarred with the brush of ineffectiveness right from the start. Anyone wishing to tear us down would only have to point to the destruction of the city and say our poor leadership was the reason it wasn't taken care of before so much damage was done. Foolishness, certainly, but it would work.”

    “I see.” Rhea stood there quietly with her jaw clenched tight for a couple seconds, eyes focused past Titana's head, before she sighed and shook her head. “I suppose you're right. The city would remain in chaos if a newly chosen leader was so easily painted as weak. That leaves only...” She trailed off, brows furrowing in confusion.

    Kitti empathized with her. She was terribly confused about a lot of things at the moment. She wanted to be angry about all this talk of replacing Lady Peregrine so soon, but those strangely comforting waves of cold running over her seemed to push away the heat of her temper. Jacob kept looking at her and smiling at her, and something deep inside her was saying this was wrong for some reason, but the rest of her was trying hard not to blush at the attention. Kitti cleared her throat and pointed out the failure of the logic of the conversation so far. “But it has to be one of you, right? If it's not one of you, then who—“

    “You.” Jacob's smile broadened yet again, and it felt like a sliver of ice slid down her spine, but in an alarmingly pleasant way. The shock must have been clear on her face, given the amusement in his eyes. “Think about it. Everyone knows you were a close friend of Lady Peregrine's, and they all began to see you as an authority figure once you gave that speech. You don't come from power or a respected bloodline, true, but that will only be a boon in these troubling days. What unites people better than a hero raised from their own ranks? Those vagabonds who helped in the fight yesterday are already being turned into folk heroes, gods save us from such madness. All we need to do is throw our support behind you, all three of us mind you, and put you forth as the rightful successor to Lady Peregrine's legacy. The people will cheer for your ascension.”

    Kitti was left speechless and staring, and it didn't help that the man kept on smiling at her like that and making her alternately want to slap him or kiss him. What was wrong with her today? She'd heard that grief worked differently for everyone, but this was ludicrous. She tore her eyes away from him with some effort and looked to Titana beside him, and was surprised to see her nodding in agreement. Kitti then turned to Rhea, hoping in vain to find a bit of sanity to cling to.

    “As much as it may annoy me to say it, Jacob is right.” Rhea shrugged a shoulder. “He would never be accepted. I was already worried at the backlash I might face, and hearing Titana voice the same concerns has convinced me. You're the only one of us who can lead Gencha and pull it back to its feet, Kitti.” She smiled, but it was a thin and sad expression. “We don't have time to grieve, unfortunately. We have to get this settled as quickly as possible so we can address the city's future effectively.”

    “Indeed, there's far too much to do to waste time. We've got a city to rebuild, and a prophecy to deal with.” Jacob spread his hands out wide and offered Kitti another spine-tingling smirk. “Are you ready to take on the burden of leadership, for the good of the people, Kitti?” There was a subtle twist to the way he said her name, familiar and intimate like his tongue was caressing it as it left his mouth. Neither of the other women seemed to notice anything amiss, but as far as Kitti was concerned the man might as well have been holding up a sign noting his new and very personal interest in her.

    It was a good thing she was already staring at him like an idiot or else she would have started doing it then. Everything was moving so fast, nothing was as she expected, and she didn't know what to do. She'd expected to have to argue for Rhea to take the leader role, and to have to fight against the machinations of Titana and Jacob to see it happen, but here they all were suggesting her for that role. Kitti wanted to tell them they were all mad, or at least to run screaming away from all of this, but their arguments sounded far too reasonable. That didn't make the idea of her taking power any less terrifying, and she was very strongly considering the running and screaming option.

    But then another thought wormed its way into her head: What would Lady Peregrine want you to do? Kitti's eyes slid closed as she considered it, blocking out Jacob's distracting face so she could actually think clearly for a moment. Lady Peregrine's greatest concern had always been to do right by the people of Gencha. What would be best for the people? Leaving the city without leadership would mean a further descent into chaos. Naming someone leader who would be easily torn down would not be any better, perhaps worse in the long run than just letting chaos reign. That left only one good option.

    “Yes.” Kitti's voice was quiet and heavy with resignation. “I'll do it, I'll lead Gencha.” She opened her eyes and immediately spotted a black bird flying by overhead. A raven, perhaps one with red eyes? It was an omen, surely, but she could not decide whether it foretold good or ill fortunes.

    Titana and Jacob walked in silence until they were long out of sight of Kitti and Rhea. They'd hashed out some of the details of how they would present Kitti as the new ruler of Gencha, and the two of them were off to see some of the preparations complete. Jacob had kept a smug smirk on his face the whole time, and it grated on Titana's nerves.

    “Are you going to smile like an idiot all day just because your charms worked on a simpleton?”

    Jacob chuckled and looked over to her. “What, are you jealous? Do you want me to make some moves on you too, maybe help you relieve a little tension?”

    Titana felt an icy chill creeping over her. She stopped walking, reached into her coat, and clamped her hand around a special little tool she kept handy whenever Jacob was around. He knew all about it, of course, and he stopped moving as well when he saw her reaching for it. “You have three seconds. One. Two. Thr—“ The cold sensation vanished, but she kept her hand on the weapon just to make a point.

    “You're no fun.” Jacob sighed and kept walking. “Fine, fine, I know the rules, no need to get violent. But if you ever change your mind, just say the word and I'll be there.”

    Titana let him stay ahead as she resumed walking. She hated having to deal with this degenerate, even without the fear of him sinking his metaphorical claws into her. She'd seen what he could do when given a little time to work his magic, and she almost felt sorry for Kitti for being his newest target. Then again, she was going to be dead soon anyway, and why should Titana care how she ended up in the grave? At least she would get some measure of happiness from his depravity before the end, and that was more than Titana would give her if she'd been the one assigned to carry out the deed.

    She let those darkly pleasant thoughts roll around freely in her mind as they approached the main airship dock of the city. There were plans to use them to herald the new ruler of Gencha, but Titana and Jacob would also plant some seeds for future plans while they were here. If all went well, chaos and destruction would overtake the city before the week was out, and that thought was enough to bring a warm smile to her face.

    “They're already maneuvering to maintain control of the city.”

    Nue rolled his eyes at Neos's pronouncement. The wizard was standing by the desk in the room and staring into a bowl of water that was glowing faintly green, some trick of his to spy on people from afar apparently, but in this case it was rather useless. Nue sat forward in his chair, grabbing a cigar from a box and a large steel and ivory ring that sat beside it. For once they were meeting in his home, a lavish manor an hour's ride outside of Gencha, rather than the cramped cathedral, and that meant he had all his desired amenities available.

    “Of course they're scrabbling to hold on to power. That is what people do when their allies fall.” Nue ran a finger over a certain point of the ring and a red glow filled the center of it. He ran it over the end of the cigar and everything it touched was vaporized, leaving a cleaner and smoother cut than even the finest mundane cigar cutter could hope to manage, as it damn well should have given the outlandish price he'd paid to commission the little magitech tool. “All we have to do is disrupt their plans and show the people a better alternative. They likely expect to breeze through the political wranglings and take the throne without a struggle before anyone else can pounce on it, so they won't be planning to work against organized opposition. I intend to capitalize on that arrogance.” Nue put the cut end of the cigar in his mouth, pressed another spot on the ring, and brought the now much brighter red glow around to the other side where it lit the cigar perfectly in an instant.

    Neos grumbled and let the magic fade from his water. “How? More pamphlets? That won't be enough to stop them taking control, and once they've got someone in place it will be damned hard to remove them without sparking a civil war. We should kill the lot of them and be done with it quickly.”

    Nue blew out a thick mouthful of smoke. “You've been very agitated today. Are you upset you weren't able to take Peregrine out with your own hands, or is something else bothering you?”

    “That isn't—“ Neos grumbled again and walked over to take a seat across from Nue. “Might be that's it. It galling. I've been planning on how to take her down for years, and she goes and does herself in. That bitch never could stand to let me have what I wanted.” He glared down at the table between them for a few seconds, then looked up with colder and more calculating eyes, the eyes Nue was used to seeing from the crafty wizard. “So what's the plan, then?”

    “More pamphlets.” Nue let that comment sit there for just long enough to see the wizard's brows twitch in annoyance. “And, of course, some work on the ground. It's already being taken care of. Necropolis and Lady Snowball remained in Gencha to see to it, and our writer friend is in my library already scribbling away. I would have expected you to already be aware of all of this.” There was no overt question or accusation in the words, but the undertone was read loud and clear.

    Neos narrowed his eyes, but gave no other indication of irritation. “I had a rather exhausting evening last night and came here straight away after waking rather than taking my time to gather information.” He fell silent for a moment, and Nue could almost see the cogs turning in his head. “Ah. Medical supplies and healers along with some construction crews, I suspect. And you have warehouses full of dried foods that must be finding their way into the hands of the hungry and newly homeless people of the city by now. 'A gift from Lord Nue Maldov in this trying time.' That would do some work, but you need to make some public appearances as well.”

    “There's the sharpness I expect from you. I'm heading into the city as soon as Mr. Herz finishes his work and copies are made. Do you have any suggestions for things I have not already planned for?” Nue knew that needling the wizard was not the wisest thing in the world, but he could not help the sly comments at the expense of the man's ego. It was far too entertaining to not do it, so it had to be done.

    “Airships.” The wizard's response was almost immediate, and it was not anything like what Nue expected. He did not need to ask questions, for Neos went on to explain it without delay. “I saw Titana and Jacob heading for the main dock. They're probably going to do something foolish like fly mourning banners for Peregrine, then switch them out to hail the new ruler of Gencha as if it's already established fact. You need to strike first. Airships are a powerful symbol of the modern age, and you need to show you're going out of your way to help the city to your detriment. Anyone with a lick of sense will be able to argue that you had the goods and the gold just laying around to throw at the woeful people of Gencha and make you look like a shallow opportunist. However, if you cut off normal trade trips and send all your airships to quickly get supplies, say timber and stone for rebuilding, and have them fly into the city tomorrow morning in formation with your banner flying proudly from them all—no, scratch that, just the lead ship so as not to appear arrogant—then that visual of you sending in very expensive aid to the city will already be stuck in their minds before they see whatever message Peregrine's lapdogs try to put out there. They can remain flying high above the city after they drop off their materials to act as a constant reminder as well.”

    Nue thought it over for a minute. It would in fact be very expensive to send his trade fleet off for such a task... but then what was the point of having outrageous wealth if not to spend some of it now and then? He could already see the easy tales of praise that could be born from it: Lord Nue, the man who rebuilt the city, the man who clothed and fed the poor, the man who raised the city from its lowest point up to new heights. He felt a grin stretching across his snout, and this time the predatory look was quite in line with what he felt. “Yes, that will do nicely. What better way to win the hearts of the people than to show them I care so very much? It'll be done by day's end. I—“ A knock at the door interrupted him. “Ah, and I believe this is our path to winning the minds of the people. Come in, Mr. Herz.”

    The door opened and the dodgy little man came in with an armful of papers. He had ink stains on his hands and face, but he looked quite pleased with himself. “I've got three along the lines you asked for, and one I came up with on the fly. Leave that one for last though.” He shuffled through the sheets to get them in the right order, then handed them to Nue whilst very obviously struggling to keep from grinning. That was probably a good sign.

    Nue took the paper and read them over once in silence. He'd asked for three separate topics to be covered: Lady Peregrine's failure to effectively defend the city, her own blast of magic that destroyed a chunk of the city, and a third to sling mud at Rhea, Titana, and Jacob for their own general faults and their purported failures to keep Gencha safe. Those three were delightfully sensational, and a simple-minded citizen reading through them would have a hard time not being angry at Peregrine and her cronies for ills true and imagined. The fourth item, however... He read through that one again, barked a quick laugh along with a puff of cigar smoke, and read the title out loud.

    “Kitti's Dark Secrets: Blood of Traitors and Lady Peregrine's Secret Illicit Lover.” Nue laughed again and gave it another read. The blood of traitors part was clean fact, if perhaps gussied up a bit to make it more exciting; her family had followed Jorick into exile after he started ranting and raving about his prophecy. Never mind the fact that it seemed he had been right all along, at least according the new popular sentiments, it was simply true that Kitti's family had turned their backs on Gencha as a whole. The more scandalous bits were likely pure fabrication, but then how else was one supposed to explain the astoundingly speedy rise to power of a moderately attractive young woman pulled from obscurity? It was exactly the kind of seedy thought that people kept to themselves, hidden in the dark recesses of their minds, but once it was brought out into the light it just clicked into place for everyone. Why hadn't Lady Peregrine ever taken a husband? Ah, perhaps it was because she preferred women but kept it a secret, and here was a plausible bit of evidence for it.

    Nue fished into a pocket and grabbed a small pouch full of gold coins. He'd been intending to use it for paying some troublemakers in the city later, but he could always send someone to get more from the vault downstairs. He tossed it to Quinzel with a nod. “A bonus for fine work. You've got a wonderfully devious mind.” The pouch of gold disappeared quickly; Nue was mildly amused by the man displaying tact in not counting the money right there in front of him. “Start working on more, but not negative ones. Something about Gencha needing a change for the better, with subtle mentions of my good works, of course.”

    Quinzel gave a shallow bow and let the previously restrained grin take over his face. “I don't usually do positive works for this kind of job, but it shouldn't be a problem. I've already got some ideas.” He nodded to Nue, then looked at Neos and quickly away without any sort of friendly gesture, then turned and head for the door.

    Nue waited long enough for the door to click shut behind the writer, only for the sake of propriety. “He doesn't like you. Afraid of you, most likely.”

    “Good.” Neos stood and headed back over to his bowl of water. “Being afraid of me is wise.”

    There was a hint of a threat there, and Nue appreciated the attempt at subtlety. He'd heard exactly what the wizard had done, and being able to pull the very life out of someone with a touch was definitely worthy of fear, for common men at least. A man like Nue, a man with vast resources who took all possible precautions, was free to butt heads with such a dangerous man and come out on top. The thrill of that clash of power was why he'd taken a liking to Neos in the first place.

    Nue didn't bother responding to the comment, he just smiled and made his own departure from the room. As much fun as it was to play games with Neos, he had a busy day of winning over a city ahead of him, and the sooner he started the better his chances would be.

    Crystal sat in a chair that was nicer than probably anything he'd ever owned before, and he'd certainly never been more uncomfortable in his life. It wasn't the chair, a plush red behemoth that seemed intent on swallowing him whole, but rather the circumstances and surroundings. He hated being just... given things. Stealing was one thing, work done to get what you wanted or needed, but hand outs were quite another. They felt like pity, like accepting them was tantamount to admitting that you could never get it on your own merits, and that felt like failure. He knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help feeling it.

    After the fight had ended last night, the three who took shelter in the cellar had been found in short order. Crystal had planned to take off as soon as possible with all their ill-gotten goods, but luck was not on his side. The Hand of Justice, Rhea, had gathered the lot of them and asked them to stay in the city. It was some kind of political nonsense, something about the morale of the city and people needing unlikely heroes and all that hogwash. Crystal hadn't bought it for a second, he could smell the bullshit clearly through all the ash and blood, but his companions hadn't been quite so aware of the deep waters they were treading in. Once they'd gotten to talking about staying, Daz and Halaster in particular making strong cases for it, there was no real hope to change their minds. Neb had taken point on haggling terms with Rhea, including blanket pardons for all crimes for the lot of them and keeping all the weapons and armor they'd acquired and being provided room and board for free so long as they remained a valuable asset of the city, and so they'd been shown to a fancy house that had belonged to a lord of some sort who had died in the fighting.

    Crystal sat in his overstuffed chair and watched the city through a large window. He had a surprisingly good view of the place for this manor being only three stories tall. It was getting on into the late afternoon of the day after the attack, and already he could see people working to erase the physical scars the dragon had left on the city and its people. Crews were finishing up the day's work on repairing buildings and clearing away rubble to rebuild, wagons rolled through the city with people calling out free medical services, and about half an hour ago a fleet of airships had flown in from the east and started offloading materials. It was hard to see what it was from this distance, but the lead ship had flown the same banner as a lot of the building crews and all of the healer wagons: light blue stripes on the outer sides, darker blue in between them, and a silver fang in the very center. Crystal wasn't sure who it belonged to, but it all reeked of more bullshit to him. Nobody who had the money to afford all of these people and supplies would actually pay for it unless they stood to gain far more. He could make some guesses about what this benevolent benefactor was after, and he suspected the ugliness in the city was far from over.

    That was all secondary though. The thing that was truly weighing on Crystal was the other person in the lavish bedroom. Kimberlyn was laid out on the bed, covers pulled up so only her face was visible. She hadn't woken since last night, and the folks from the healer wagons were unable to say what was wrong with her. Their oh-so-helpful advice to let her rest was all that could be done, and it irritated Crystal to no end. Something weird happened to her, something to do with all the other weird shit that went down last night, and she was the only one of their group who had actually done something worthwhile of being called a hero of Gencha, but here she was in a sleep so deep they thought she was dead until someone held a glass up to her face and saw faint hints of condensation form from her shallow breaths. She could be dying for all they knew, and Crystal could do nothing but sit here and hope she would wake up soon.

    A knock on the door pulled him from those morbid thoughts. Daz's head poked around the door, and he glanced nervously at the bed before focusing on Crystal. “Uh, boss, there's someone here I think you should talk to. Has some, uh... interesting ideas that're getting the lads riled up.”

    Crystal sighed and remained in his chair. There had been people coming to see them all day, everyone from average folks to powerful people. One man had asked them to come move into the rooms above one of his largest shops to attract customers. It was an endless chain of nonsense, all because word about the 'heroes' of the battle had gotten around. “I thought I told you guys not to pay and mind to the nonsense. Whoever it is, they just want to use us for their own gain like the rest of them.” He turned his eyes back to Kimberlyn, ready to sink back into his gloomy brooding.

    Daz apparently had other plans. He cleared his throat, stepped inside, and shut the door. “Well, ah, that may be true, but problem is he's got a way with words. He's talking about us using this opportunity to take something real for ourselves, not just taking the scraps the masters of the city are willing to throw under the table. His words, not mine, I call this more like a juicy chunk of steak than a scrap, but you know you give the lads a finger and most of 'em wanna take the hand.” He lowered his voice and looked to Kimberlyn again, and his brows drew down in a grimace. “And he says he knows about her, and how to fix her. I really think you should come talk to him.”

    “Why didn't you start with that part?” Crystal was already struggling to extract himself from the cushioned embrace of the chair as he said it. It took him a minute to get free, but once he was out he was hurrying past Daz faster than the short dwarf's legs could carry him. Whatever 'interesting' ideas the visitor had, if they involved something that could help Kimberlyn then he wanted to hear about it. He hurried down the hall, then down to the ground floor down the grand spiral staircase, barely noticing the opulence around him, and heard chatter coming from the room their guide had called the lounge.

    Crystal entered the room to find almost everyone of their little bandit group gathered and listening to the newcomer. The room was full of couches and chairs of all sorts, and they'd been arrayed in a very neat pattern around the room, but now they had been moved to form a rough half circle around the fireplace. The man standing in front of them, back to the ash and embers left over from a previous fire, was not immediately impressive. He was rather average for a human: just shy of six feet tall, neither noticeably heavy or skinny, unremarkable facial features, brown hair, and eyes... Crystal had to stop and stare once he noticed the eyes. They were a similar dull brown as the hair, but there was something more to them, a spark of frantic energy dancing through them, but they were somehow also glassy and lifeless like a dead man's eyes. It was disturbing to say the least.

    The man noticed Crystal's entry and stopped whatever he'd been saying. “Ah, you must be the leader of this intrepid band. We have so much to talk about, you and I, so many opportunities to discuss. But where are my manners?” The man bowed, a quick dip that lacked the gravity and sense of respect one would give when bowing to a superior. When he stood straight again a grin stretched his lips, but there was no humor or merriment in those strange eyes. “Call me Gwazi. It's truly a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

    Plants bent out of the way as a tall, thin man walked through the woods, evening sunlight catching his pale skin now and then through the canopy, though his silver eyes glowed all the same in shadow or light. The sounds of plants snapping and trees crashing to the ground followed in his wake. The plants that did not manage to get out of the way and had the unfortunate luck to touch him began to wither and die after a short pause. It was dreadfully dreary, as always. These plants were clearly not the ordinary sort though, given their apparent awareness of the danger he posed and ability to pull out of the way. He stopped and examined a tree, sniffing at the bark, then pressed a finger to it as the sounds of destruction faded to silence behind him. It took longer to start dying than a normal tree would, resisting for a few seconds before the brown faded to a dull grey. That was interesting indeed.

    “Grene has been through here.” He spoke the thought aloud without seeking an answer, but he got one anyway.

    “What's the plan then, boss? Gonna kill her? Could be tough.”

    Holm Shire sighed and waved a hand to his side. “Perhaps, Dunru. I suspect she'll get in our way eventually.”

    The ghost floated through the dying tree he had apparently been behind or inside of. It looked like a human, but translucent and silver with hazy details. “Think she's gonna be in this town then? The one your boss wants you to deal with?”

    “The Lord of Destruction is more than just my boss, Dunru. And yes, I suspect she will be in Eles. She has a habit of getting in the way.” Holm held his hand out to the dying tree and sped up the process. As the wood lost its life and vibrancy, he began to bend it into a new shape and infuse it with a different sort of energy. It took no more than a minute to see it done, and a twisted and gnarled humanoid form made of wood rose from the forest floor with eyes of pale blue flame sunk deep into its small sphere of a head. “Join the others.”

    The undead tree golem lumbered off immediately. Holm resumed walking, and after a brief pause the chorus of destruction rose again behind him. He did not need to look behind to know that animated corpses and golems and other lifeless but moving things were packed in a massive horde and following him. The creation of this dead army had been Holm Shire's task for the past two centuries, and now he had been called upon to use it. He was not excited by the task, nor was he sickened by it. Those who stood in the way of the Lord of Destruction's plans simply needed to be removed so that balance could be restored to the world. The Lord of Destruction had reached out to Holm and told him the town of Eles was a problem that needed solving. There was only one solution for problems of that nature.

    Holm Shire lead his lifeless army toward Eles, straight as an arrow, and in their wake the forest was torn asunder. He envied the town's inhabitants. Soon they would be dead and freed from the burdens of living a life in this awful world of chaos and mayhem. Their removal would open the path to the Lord of Destruction bringing order and peace to the world, and for that Holm felt a small glimmer of hope. These centuries of disorder had been so very tedious, and he looked forward to seeing it all torn down.

    The sun was just starting to touch the horizon when the airships first spotted the little hut on the sand. Umi stood on the beach, looking at the sun rather than the ships, but she also saw the view from the ships in dozens of fractured pieces. The mind link she had established with the animals sent to fetch the northern clans was still active, and it only took a little effort to split her focus between their senses and her own. It was a trick that even other Immortals found difficult to replicate, but that was only to be expected. There were reasons even other Immortals feared the Witch of the Water, and this intense control of her own mental focus was the key to it all, but of course nobody but she and perhaps the gods understood that. Where others saw magic as a tool in and of itself, Umi saw the truth: the mind was the tool and magic was the material it acted upon. While others aimed to increase how much power they could draw in, she sought to improve the strength and accuracy of her mind. The others were like fools who carried great heaps of wood and called themselves skill carpenters while Umi made works of art with as little wood as possible.

    A twist of amusement at her own thoughts made her brush them away. She had also worked hard to avoid becoming an arrogant narcissist over the years, unlike many of her kin who great over-inflated egos through extensive contact with mortals, and such thoughts of her own superiority would push her down the path she'd spent so much work avoiding. Umi dismissed the vision from the creatures on the airships with a simple thought. They would arrive soon, and she was still not sure which of them would be the hero she was looking for. The leader of the clans, the woman who wielded a sword like she was born to it, or the man who had been selected by Jorick and held an interesting power in his blood. Any of them would suffice, but it would take some confrontation to see whose heart was strongest.

    “Are you sure you wish to stay and watch, Unseen Lord?” Umi didn't bother looking to the side where he was hovering; he was formless as usual, so there was nothing to look at. “The one Jorick marked may be able to sense you, and you know what needs to be done. You've never been the sort to enjoy direct conflict.”

    No words were spoken in response. The god's words were instead directly imprinted on her thoughts: I must take their measure. You seek a hero, I seek a savior. It must be done.

    Umi disliked not knowing things, and this was something that had been irritating her for nearly a decade. The Unseen Lord had told her of the need of a savior, but he wouldn't say what exactly they were supposed to save, or how he would know them when he saw them, or why it had to be some special specific person rather than a suitable candidate guided from the shadows. It would not be the first time the Unseen Lord played a shell game with the forces of fate and twisted them to his liking, after all, but he refused to explain himself. Gods were like that, every last one of them damnably enigmatic, and it was truly irritating.

    “Fine, fine, do as you will, far be it from me to tell you how to conduct your business.” Umi flicked a dismissive hand in the god's direction, but the slight smile on her face was enough to show she was well aware of the monumental lie in her words. She was exactly the kind of person to tell a god what they should do, and she'd done so extensively to the Unseen Lord lately. A warm glow of merriment washed over her, radiating out from the god like gentle sunlight. He took her badgering well, at least, which was a good thing given their need to work together so often.

    Umi turned away from the waves and headed up to her hut. The god remained where he was, and she could sense that he was watching the approaching airships. She also got a sense of intense need from him, and that worried her greatly. Gods tended to do extreme things when they felt they needed to, and she did not look forward to seeing the Unseen Lord pushed to such a state. For the sake of the world, she hoped he found this savior he was looking for, and soon. If his plans fell through and he decided the Lord of Destruction and his cronies needed to be dealt with by other gods, it would certainly bring devastation the likes of which no mortal had ever seen.

    But then again, that was why she was working on her own plans: to make sure such extreme options were not necessary. Umi hurried to her hut to prepare what she needed to test her visitors. She could not worry about the Unseen Lord when she had her own machinations to tend to, of course. Someone was going to die tonight, and she was looking forward to seeing who it would be. Perhaps some would call her twisted to looking forward to such things, but she took amusement where she could find it and would not apologize to anyone for it. It was not all that horrible anyway. At the end of the day, what value did one mortal's life have when weighed against the fate of the world itself? None, Umi reckoned, none at all.
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  8. A History of Iwaku by Tari of Eles

    II - The Age of Immortals

    The Age of Immortals began in a haze of confusion. With the rogue gods banished, the benevolent gods withdrawn, and Immortals and mortals alike scattered across unfamiliar lands, they were all at a loss as to how they should proceed with their lives. It is said that many Immortals despaired as the remaining gods stopped answering their pleas, and some accounts hinted that some of them killed themselves or turned spitefully from the benevolent gods to worship those locked away. The Siren of the Shadows in particular wrote eloquently on the matter:

    “We were lost, cut adrift with no guidance. We were not equipped for such a life. After living so long with the gods at our sides and showing us the way, what were we to do? Imagine, mortals, if your mother and father fought to the death and the survivor then abandoned you, and you will know a fraction of our grief. Some embraced oblivion, for a life without the gods was not a life they wished to live. Others turned their backs on those who abandoned us, dedicating themselves to freeing the imprisoned gods in the hopes that they would be less careless with those who loved them. I empathize with them, for even now I still feel that aching pain of loss and rejection like it happened just days ago rather than decades.”

    As previously mentioned, the question arose amongst the Immortals of what exactly they should do with the mortals. Some advocated eradication; most accounts say this was due to fear that these creations of the rogue gods would be unbearably evil, but I suspect there was some measure of jealousy in there as well, for the mortals were not distraught and suffering for the loss of the gods they had known. Mercy won out in the end, of course, but not everywhere, and not cleanly. Being scattered across the newly fractured world, the mortals and Immortals ended up coming together in relatively small groups of tens to hundreds at first. Many of these initial groups of mortals were subject to slaughter by Immortals who had not been convinced to show mercy. There are no specific writings that indicate the reverse occurred anywhere, but some stories exist (notably among the clans of the north) that tell of gods being slain by mortal hand after the world was shattered. It seems very plausible to me that these stories came from mortals slaying Immortals in the early days of this new age.

    Settlements formed quickly. The mortals had been left by their creators to see to their own shelter, and as such they turned out to be quite adept at building homes and other structures. Immortals, on the other hand, were able to wield their vast magical talents to create buildings just like they had in city blown asunder by the fighting gods. While the mortals generally grouped together in large numbers and set down roots with the intent to stay, the Immortals were more mercurial in their habits. They had indeed been settled people before war broke out between the gods, but in this new age without the gods to tie them down to any one place they became prone to wandering. Many left the burgeoning villages and towns early on, never to be seen there again. Others traveled far and wide, seeking out others who had survived and returning once in a while with news of such survivors. A few remained in one place, and those turned out to be the most troublesome of the lot.

    With the gods effectively gone, there was nobody left above the Immortals. It seems many of them decided that this made them the new rulers of the world and all that lived on it. These Immortals became rulers, some tyrants but others more benevolent. The conflicts that arose between them were inevitable. What could be done when one Immortal said that she and her people owned a certain river, and another Immortal declared that he and his people were going to use it anyway? Resources were limited, and competition for control of them is the prime motivator of large scale conflict. Perhaps it did not need to be this way, perhaps it's not as natural and logical as we believe it to be. Perhaps we only think of it as such because we learned it from the Immortals who once ruled over our ancestors. Whatever the case may be, the idea has taken root in our consciousness because it has been the justification for war used since Immortals ruled over our ancestors.

    The worst of the lot in those early days was, sadly, the Immortal known in writings primarily as Godslayer, the Immortal who had been granted the sword that is said to be the most powerful weapon ever created. Theories abound among scholars, mortal and Immortal alike, as to why he was corrupted. He had been a champion standing against destruction, but in the end he became a vessel of destruction instead. The phrase “power corrupts” seems a convenient and logical explanation, certainly, and many believe this to be all the explanation that is needed, for he had vast power that surely corrupted him. I, however, see a simpler answer. This Godslayer surely felt bereft by the loss of the gods, just as his fellow Immortals did. Why would we expect him to be any more resilient to that loss than the others? Just because he had a fancy powerful sword? Many other Immortals turned to dark methods to cope with their anguish, but most did not. I posit that Godslayer was a regular Immortal, and he followed the same path as his fellows. There need be no special reason, no banal saying, to explain how despair could drive Godslayer to tyranny. What cure is there for feeling loss of control over your life other than taking control of whatever you can get your hands on?

    The war that saw the fall of Godslayer came to be known later as the Second War, the First War being that which consumed the end of the Age of Gods. Depending on one's definition of war, this is grossly inaccurate. Many fights arose between Immortals and their mortal followers. It is impossible to estimate how many Immortals survived the cataclysmic war that tore the world apart, but based on various accounts of varying levels of credibility it seems safe to say that hundreds died in the first century thereafter, not counting those who took their own lives which may drive the figure over one thousand. In these fights over territory and resources, or those over ideology and disguised as fights for resources, the Immortals were always the key. Once the Immortal leading one side was slain, their mortal followers would quickly surrender. Sometimes they were slain to a man, sometimes they were assimilated into the victor's growing population of mortal followers. Nations were carved out in bloody swathes, with some said to have been formed from the remains of cities and peoples after a dozen or more Immortals had died in bloody conflict.

    Godslayer, however, accounted for far more than that. He declared war on all Immortals in his vicinity, sending messengers telling them to prepare for their imminent deaths. This lead to the so-called Second War, and from early on Godslayer was poised to win it. It is said that he kept a trophy from every Immortal he defeated, and kept a list of their names etched into his flesh (not in the form of tattoos, but rather ritual scarification as practiced by some of the northern clans). Accounts vary in the numbers offered, from thirty up to over one hundred, but there is one specific telling of the numbers that I find most credible: “When the great Godslayer was slain, I took count of the names upon his flesh. Sixty-three in total. The names of sixty-three I once counted as brothers and sisters were written there. I wept then, crouched over his body. I wept for the many dead, and for Godslayer, and for all of us, for what had become of our people and our world. An ocean of grief poured out of me that day, and the pit inside my stomach grew only larger. I knew this had to be the worst of it, the worst of the senseless killing. Not because I believed nobody capable of worse, but because I knew that anything more than this would cause that gaping pit of sorrow to swallow me whole.” Students of history will of course recognized this piece from the autobiographical writings of the Immortal Jorick, less widely known by the archaic name of Guardian of Light, though I have reason to believe this was a new name he took on well after the Godslayer fell. I have seen a couple fragments of a work signed by one Traveler of the Stars that had a remarkably similar style of handwriting and use of words.

    While Godslayer was indeed powerful, he was finally stopped by a coalition of Immortals who were determined to put an end to the madness. Among them were Jorick, the Witch of the Water, ten others who died in the fight, and a curious fellow known as Speaker of the Dead. Jorick's own account says Speaker of the Dead was vital to the success of their mission, whereas Witch of the Water wrote that he was a dangerous liability that nearly cost them everything. I note this oddity here, and suggest that perhaps the Witch was correct, because Speaker of the Dead plays an important role later on in this history. Returning to the matter of the coalition, they were those among the Immortals challenged to war who had eventually decided to stop trying to use mortals as proxies to fight Godslayer. Instead they infiltrated his fortress home and tried, and failed, to catch him unaware. The fight destroyed the fortress and much around it (locating information is sparse, but there is a lake some thirty miles southeast of Gencha with an abnormally round shoreline that I suspect may be the remaining scar of that battle). Godslayer the Immortal was slain, and Godslayer the weapon was taken by Jorick.

    After the battle was concluded, and presumably after Jorick was finished weeping for those lost, Godslayer's body was used for some kind of magic ritual. Jorick's writings mention it only in passing, and speak only to the effects. The Witch of the Water, however, described it to some degree: “Godslayer was an exquisite vessel of sacrifice more potent than any I've seen before or since, including the weapon he took his name from. He sacrificed the lives of his fellows, the lives of thousands of mortals, his own sanity, and finally he himself was sacrificed. Sacrifice is power, and his body contained power enough to change the world. We used it.” I posit that this, the world-changing power, was the core of the reason some of the coalition sought to kill Godslayer. There may have been some pure noble intentions involved for most of them, but from the writings of Jorick and the Witch of the Water I get the sense that the greater purpose had driven them to the deed more than anything else.

    Using the corpse of the Godslayer, the remaining Immortals of the coalition granted mortals the gift of magic. Most mortals already had access to magic of a sort, but apparently it was a pale imitation of what we have now. Some could throw fireballs, others could fly, and so on, but it was generally one specific trick of magic per person. They were innate skills that drew upon the latent power around them, not consciously directed magic as the gifted among us possess today. Another excerpt from the Witch of the Water's writings: “There was a clear and pronounced divide between our kind and mortalkind that was the root cause of these conflicts. What could mortals do other than cower and bow before one who could tear them apart with a thought? They were made to fight our conflicts out of fear, not loyalty or love or belief in our causes. For this senseless slaughter to end, the scales had to be tipped closer to balanced to give the mortals a chance to fight back against those who would control them.”

    This apparently angered many of the Immortals. Speaker of the Dead was among them. He cursed the other two as mad fools and left them. The writings of Jorick and the Witch of the Water stop here and do not resume until what seems to be many years later. They do not account for this time, and it is unclear why there is such an unexplained gap (not even in the Witch's style, as after a break near the beginning of the Age of Mortals that is explained by “Didn't feel like writing for the last hundred years or so. Couldn't hurt to start again, I suppose.”). I speculate that one of two things, or perhaps both of them simultaneously, consumed their time and attentions in this period. One: they were traveling the world teaching mortals how to use their new magical skills, or Two: they were being hunted by Immortals who were angry about what they had done. Why these things go unwritten I do not know, but then I suppose the Immortals are known to our kind as being strange and confusing at best.

    In the decades that followed, mortals rose up against Immortal tyrants in many places around the world. It is unclear how many Immortals perished in this period of turmoil, but it seems that their numbers were reduced to no more than a few hundred in total by the end of it. There are many stories of these events that have become cornerstones of local folklore, including hero worship of those who struck the killing blow against their tormentors. For example, the old nation of Conselia praised a man known as The Butcher for using a cleaver to sever the head of an Immortal known as Herald of the Ocean; after Conselia was taken over by Gencha the praise for The Butcher spread, but after the formation of the Ivory Circle (which will be covered later on) the stories lost favor and were largely forgotten by the general populace. This story repeated in many places, and a lot of the tales of the felling of Immortal tyrants were softened or garbled by the ages to turn them into more generic evil oppressor figures, not specifically Immortals.

    Regardless, this in turn lead to the formation of more independent mortal nations. As noted prior, the northern clans of Patan (the eastern continent) had already been independent, and there were a few holdouts to be found (mostly on Matria, the western continent, that had apparently ended up with a far smaller ratio of Immortals to mortals) that had maintained independence from Immortals, but most places of civilization had been ruled by Immortals. In the period following mortals being granted greater access to magical forces, the balance began to shift. There was much infighting amongst mortal-ruled nations that kept them from becoming the dominant forces of the world for a long period of time, and many Immortal rulers encouraged this in their neighbors. Some of them used the classic divide and conquer strategy to take over lands that had overthrown their previous Immortal rulers, and it was apparently quite successful.

    Other Immortals, however, turned to very different tactics. Cult writings indicate this period as being the time of their founding, when many Immortals turned to worshipping the banished rogue gods. The most prominent among them, and the one referred to most often in cultist tracts I have gotten my hands on, is none other than Speaker of the Dead. I will let his chilling words explain what seems to be the major shared motivation of those Immortals who turned their backs on the benevolent gods in this time:

    “Extinction looms inevitable before us. Where once there was balance between Immortals and mortals, the usurpation of the gods' will has turned the tides against us. Our numbers dwindle while theirs grow exponentially. We did not understand the truth of the balance of life and death until we became subject to imbalance. When the Lord of Destruction spoke of balance, we saw it as a thinly-veiled excuse for our extermination. The Lady of Justice, lacking in the appellations of Swift and Fierce that she once deserved, has allowed this shift to occur. She remains the only god capable of righting the wrong that was done, but she refuses to answer our calls. We are twice abandoned by her and her ilk, so we must turn to the Lord of Destruction for our salvation. Perhaps he will indeed destroy us all in the end, but it is a risk we must take. What choice truly exists when your options are certain annihilation or a chance at life?”

    However, they were not content to simply turn their prayers in a new direction. Some accounts say that their prayers were in fact answered, and it seems quite believable given the forces they soon brought to bear. Many of these discontented Immortals traveled to the western continent, lead by Speaker of the Dead, and began to subjugate the mortal civilizations there. Unlike the previous attempts at tyranny, this time it was a group of Immortals working together against the mortals. In writings from and about those efforts, it seems the idea was to enforce a restored balance. There were some rather radical notions of maintaining strict population control on the mortals to prevent them from getting so numerous as to overwhelm and eradicate the Immortals. They were extraordinarily effective, in large part because they were able to command dragons. Dragons had been scourges of the Age of Immortals, considered more akin to natural disasters than creatures that could be dealt with, but these Immortals commanded them with ease.

    Those reading this text who are not scholars of history might be extremely confused by the prior mention of nations on the western continent, for as everyone knows it was only sparsely inhabited by the time the Ivory Circle formed and began colonizing it. That is unfortunately another bit of false history that has propagated through generations of misinformation. There are new tales popping up all the time of strange ruins being found in places thought utterly uninhabited, and they are not always false. There were in fact thriving nations on the continent, mostly free of Immortal influence, but they were demolished by the onslaught of the dragons. The mortals of the western continent were forced into servitude, corralled into camps after their towns and cities were torn asunder, and as it turned out their magical prowess could not stand against dragons, the most fearsome beasts of war ever created.

    These mortals were held in miserable conditions for some number of years (some accounts suggest a few, others say perhaps as long as two decades). Other Immortals eventually found out what their brethren were up to, and something odd happened. Over the course of those years, it seems from all writings I have found that the Immortals on both sides of the issue viewed this matter as something of a last stand. There was some communication between most of them, it seems, but they were not kind enough to write down the exact content of those discussions. Nonetheless, it seemed an ideological line in the sand was drawn, and there would be no tolerance for those who refused to take a side. The writings of one Immortal named Scout of the Snow give clear voice to this situation:

    “It is clear now that this will be our final statement as a united people, one way or another. The years do not take us, but still we die by other means, and we have never grown fond of breeding as mortals have. The last of our kind born, so far as I heard, was well over a century ago. Our lonesome ways have caught up to us, and now we leave a legacy for the mortals to remember us by. They are the inheritors of this world, and our final statement will be to them. Do we tell them they are horrid filth to be ground beneath the boots of their superiors until they finally perish, or do we tell them they are beings worthy of life and dignity who deserve to outlast us? These are our only choices, for to stand aside would be to die in silence and obscurity. I choose to spend my dying breath on a message of hope and beauty.”

    Some Immortals trickled away from the eastern continent to join Speaker of the Dead. Others began to join together and make plans to fight them. Despite the prevailing notion that sitting out was not an option, there were in fact two holdouts: Guardian of Light (better known as Jorick) and the Witch of the Water. The Witch, based on her own writing, simply did not care to make a grand statement: “Fools speak of last words and leaving a message. Pah, load of nonsense. I don't plan on dying, so I don't need to go around picking my last words any time soon.” A reasonable enough stance, I suppose. Jorick's objection was rather more visceral: “If I stand aside then most of my people shall kill each other. If I choose a side then their blood shall truly be on my hands. There is no winning this battle. I have one question to answer to make my decision: will I be able to live with myself after making one of these choices?”

    That is a difficult question indeed. Jorick was unable to answer it, but when the time to move was approaching, one of the Immortals aligned against Speaker of the Dead reached out to him. The Warden of the Woods is the most elusive of the Immortal writers I have seen; it seems she only bothered writing things down when a mortal asked her to do so. I found her account of speaking to the Guardian of Light in a copy of the personal journals of a botanist who went on an expedition to the wilder parts of the western continent some seventy years ago; apparently the botanist had come from Gencha and was fascinated with the tale related to Jorick and asked her to write it down on the only paper he had available. The writing was clearly from a hand unused to holding a pen, and from a person with only a simple grasp of the written language, but I shall transcribe it here more legibly.

    “Nobody wanted to talk to him. They were scared. He had Godslayer. He could have killed us all. But we needed him. Dragons were too strong to fight. We would lose. I told him that. He had all the power. His choice was THE choice. They die or we die. And if we die then they come for him. Then they die too. They die or everyone dies. No other choices. I did not like it. I cried. He looked awful. Like he already died inside. But he agreed. He helped us.”

    Jorick's writings confirm these events. He explained his decision thusly: “The blood was already on my hands. I had waded hip deep in the blood of my brethren already, and I had no choice but to see it through to the end. I had to choose the option with the least blood. May the gods forgive me for what I must do.” He managed to persuade the Witch of the Water to join as well. It's unclear what exactly convinced her, but her writing contained many irritated insults directed at Jorick so it might have been a threat or blackmail of some kind. Regardless, the both of them joined the Warden of the Woods and the Scout of the Snow and dozens of others in their travel westward. Armies of mortals trailed in their wake, not as chattel but as allies. Over the years of planning, word had spread to the mortals about what horrors awaited them should the worshippers of the sealed gods have their way, and many of them chose to fight for the future of their people as well. Their journey through the tundra lands of the north was apparently quite unpleasant due to the harrying raids from the clans, who refused to join a fight in a distant land and were brave enough to raid army supply trains with their smaller bands of fighters.

    Eventually they made their way to the point in the north where the continents are closest together, but still much too far to see from one to the other with even the aid of magical sight. This, apparently, was the reason the Witch of the Water was needed. She proved the might behind her name by parting the sea around them, Immortals and the thousands of humans trailing behind, and kept the waters at bay for three and a half straight days without rest. When the task was finished someone asked if she needed rest. Her reply was simple: “I could use a nap.” And then she continued walking until they all made camp for the night hours later. This became a popular saying among soldiers, especially those from Boregam (another kingdom that was eventually swallowed up by Gencha), who used it as a lighthearted way to say “I'm exhausted but I'm not going to give up.”

    They continued their march westward and southward, seeking out those who had joined Speaker of the Dead. It was a long march, and at the end of it there was no element of surprise for either side. Dragons, it seems are both stupendous scouts and very obvious landmarks of sorts. There was something of a parley between the two sides. Jorick wrote about it at length, but Speaker of the Dead wrote only a transcription of what was actually said:

    “I met Guardian of Light midway between our forces. He asked if there was any way to end things peacefully. I told him that there could be peace between us, that we could be brothers with no grief between us, if he took my hand and helped me reclaim the future for our people. He asked after the future of the mortals, and I told him the truth: they would be left to live, but kept contained and pacified as necessary to ensure our safety. He could not accept that this was necessary for our people to live and thrive, so he turned his back on me. I could have struck him down then, but I stayed my hand. I only hope that this does not prove a mistake in the coming battle.”

    I have been unable to find any later works signed by Speaker of the Dead, nor any that I suspect may be his work without his name attached. It seems his mercy did prove to be a mistake. Many accounts, including those now viewed as mere myth and folklore, describe the battle that followed, far better than I can manage. The dragons decimated the mortal forces, and if it were not for Jorick staying back with them in anticipation of this assault it would have been much worse. Godslayer proved quite good at dragonslaying. There is a large field roughly thirty miles west of the city of C'box known as the Field of Bones. No plantlife grows there, but there are many large bones scattered around, most partially buried in the earth. This is where the dragons were killed, and their numbers never recovered it seems; dragons assaulting mortal towns and cities became a rarity rather than a regular disaster as it had once been, and they are thought to be entirely extinct on the eastern continent.

    While Jorick dealt with the dragons, the Immortals fought one another. It was apparently a brutal battle, and one that those fighting for mortals nearly lost. Some writings attribute this to their side being less ruthless than those fighting with Speaker of the Dead, for they were reluctant to kill fellow Immortals while their opponents saw it as a clear matter of life or death. Their salvation came in the form of sacrifice. Scout of the Snow was grievously wounded, and with the last of his strength he sought out the Witch of the Water. Her writing will prove more poignant than my dry recounting of the event.

    “Scout of the Snow came to me with his guts hanging out his stomach. He didn't have long for this world, and I thought he wanted healing. I thought I'd have to tell him that wasting the time to heal him would mean probably ten more would fall without my magic at work. True, but cruel to say to a dying man, and cruelty without cause has never suited me. Instead he asked me to use his life before it was spent. There are some acts that some see as forbidden in magic. Raising the dead and altering minds rank high among them, but perhaps the most taboo is using the flame of another's life to fuel a spell. I figure if a man is willing to lay down his life for his kin, then it's not my place to tell him it can be done but it shouldn't. I had him sit on the ground beside me and leaned his head against my thigh, made him comfortable as I could. Then I put my hand on his head and squeezed the life out of him like juice from an orange. He didn't utter a sound, though his last moments had to be fiery agony, and he looked peaceful at the end. Some say only the dead know peace, and I believe it after seeing his face. I used that power to cut a bloody line through the enemy, and none could stand before me. It was over in a minute, after what must've been an hour of back and forth fighting. We owe our victory to the Scout of the Snow and his sacrifice, and the mortals owe their happy lives to him. Shame they've all gone and started treating Jorick as the hero, the irritating little shit.”

    Again, the distaste for Jorick seems to indicate that their relationship was less than amicable. Regardless, I posit that Jorick, the Guardian of Light, deserves plenty of credit. By all accounts, without him there to handle the dragons it would have been an utter slaughter. Speaker of the Dead would have won and lived on to grind mortals under the heel of oppression for countless years to come. Even so, I hope that those who read this will also hold a place in their hearts for Scout of the Snow and his sacrifice for our people. It is a grievous shame that this is not common knowledge amongst mortals, but such can be said of many other things I hope I will rectify with this writing.

    Once the battle was concluded, no survivors from the side of Speaker of the Dead were found. They were eradicated by Witch of the Water, it seems, and that is indeed a good thing for us mortals. In the aftermath of the fighting, Jorick gathered his fellow survivors and explained a vision for the future. He told them that their time was passing, that they were lingering shadows of history that would only cause untold pain and grief for mortals if something was not done. He asked them to make one of two choices: help him in building the civilizations of humanity into powerful forces that would never be subjugated again, or simply stay out of the way as he helped them secure their future. Most chose the latter, and sadly from bits and pieces found in various writings it seems many of them chose to end their own lives rather than continue on after helping kill many of their kin. By the best counts I can gather, there were certainly less than fifty Immortals left alive after the battle, and perhaps as few as thirty before even accounting for the suicides.

    Conventional knowledge holds that the Age of Immortals did not end until the formation of the Ivory Circle. However, I see things differently. This last battle between Immortals that saw them reduced to the edge of extinction, and Jorick's decision to help build up the mortal races, was in my eyes quite clearly the end of their age. The Age of Immortals began with a broken world, and it ended with a broken people. It is morbidly poetic, and for that reason alone I feel comfortable in shirking conventional knowledge and declaring the end of the age to fall there on the day of that battle.

    The Age of Mortals began amidst blood and sorrow, but the sacrifices of those who came before us have paved the way to an age of peace and prosperity. The journey there was not a smooth one, certainly, but you will notice that it was far less terrible for mortalkind than previous ages. One can only hope that it remains that way, for it seems ages have a habit of ending with the destruction of those for whom it is named.
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  9. Chapter 5 - A Bloody Harvest

    The beach glowed as the sun sank behind the airships. It wasn't just a trick of the light catching the white sand, Ozzie was sure of that much. It had to be magic, but he'd never seen anything quite like this. Bursts of light and glowing orbs held aloft, sure, but a couple miles of sand along a bay? That was something else entirely. He supposed it could just be a glowing layer set over the sand, rather than each individual piece of sand being infused with magic, but even so that would take a lot of power... and the glow coming from under the water for a long ways off was disconcerting indeed.

    As the ships were guided down into the water to rest, a person emerged from the lone structure on the beach. For a moment he could have sworn he saw a lithe and youthful figure, with long, black hair and glowing silver eyes and not a stitch of clothing on her. He blinked and the image was gone, and in its place was an old crone with a hunched back, wrapped in robes crusted over with salt and sand, though the eyes remained the same. Ozzie chuckled quietly to himself, leaning his elbows on the front rail of the ship. If he was to the point of conjuring illusions of lovely maidens to take the place of an old witch, then surely it had been far too long since he'd shared his bed with someone.

    The nose of the ship bumped into the glowing sand and plowed a little way through it. Ozzie did not bother waiting for a cautious route downward: he hopped over the railing, climbed down a bit so he was hanging from the very bottom of it, then let go to drop the rest of the way down to the soft sand below. He landed poorly and twisted his right ankle, but he held in the gasp of pain that wanted to come out. This was no time to show weakness. He leaned down and checked his ankle to make sure it wasn't broken, hiding it as him simply examining the sand. Nothing seemed broken, so that was good. The sand though... Ozzie stood with a handful of glowing white grains, letting them trickle down out of his loosely held fist. Every single one sparkled like a miniature star hurtling to the earth.

    Ozzie could feel those silver eyes on him, and when he looked to the old woman he saw her mouth turned up in a satisfied little smile. He could tell then that she knew exactly what he was thinking, that it would take monstrous power to perform such a feat and she was the only one around who could have done it, and she looked pleased by those thoughts. It was eerie and also a little irritating. He walked toward her, trying to hide his limp as some slipping in the sand, but the woman's eyes shot down to his right leg immediately. Her smile broadened just a hair as she flicked a finger in his direction. It felt like a warm breeze rolled from his heart, through his gut, and down his right leg, strange enough to make him halt for a moment. When he took another step his ankle was perfectly fine. Gratitude may have been the wise reaction, but instead he walked up to the witch with brows and mouth drawn down into a glower.

    “Why did you send all those animals to fetch us? What game are you playing here?”

    The wrinkly old face broke into a full grin. “The only game that matters, Ozzie. Cheating fate and forging destiny.”

    A chill went down his spine as she used his name. He opened his mouth to ask how she knew it, but then it clicked: the animals. She must have been using them as spies of some kind. The old woman nodded as if she could read his thoughts and was answering them. “You're creepy.”

    “Yes.” She didn't seem at all offended by the insult, and her voice was full of amusement. “And you're a reckless fool. You're going to get yourself killed. Call me Umi.”

    Ozzie stared at her in silence. He couldn't tell if the words were a threat or a general statement or maybe just a strange joke given her tone of voice. The sound of footsteps in the sand behind him indicated others finally joining him. Someone rammed him to the side with a hefty shoulder as they walked up even with him, sending him stumbling to the side hard enough that he tripped and fell.

    “Rude little shit.” Grumpy spent only a moment glaring at Ozzie before he turned to Umi. They locked eyes. Ozzie had seen this sort of thing before, especially among the clans. They were sizing each other up, which often lead to a fight to prove who was the stronger man. This time, however, things went very differently. Grumpy broke eye contact and bowed, a full bow that looked to actually hold some measure of respect. When he rose, he spoke with reserved caution. “Greetings, Witch of the Water. The clan elders heeded your call and lead us here. What wisdom to you have for us?”

    Umi remained silent, looking at Grumpy in silence for a long while. As she did so, a hand shot into Ozzie's view, held out to offer him help standing. He blinked at it, followed the arm, and went pale when he saw Fury looming over him. She rolled her eyes and thrust her hand a little closer, so he grabbed it and scrabbled to his feet. Fury said nothing to him, she just turned her attention to Grumpy and Umi. Ozzie felt someone else walk up on his other side, and he was surprised to look and see Elle Joyner there. He thought she would have stayed back with the old and young of the clans, but she must have gotten on one of the ships without him seeing it. She gave him a little nod of greeting, but remained silent and also kept her eyes on the witch and the clan leader.

    Tension built as others of the clans joined them, standing and watching as Umi simply looked at Grumpy like he was a curious insect she had never seen before. A stray breeze slid through the crowd, ruffling hair and clothing, and that was the loudest sound among them for a long while. It was rather disconcerting, Ozzie felt. The only time he'd ever been in a group so tense with expectation was when he'd witnessed an execution. That wait for the axe to fall had been much the same as the current wait.

    “Oh man, this is so cool!” The silence was shattered by an excited girl's voice. It took Ozzie only a moment to spot Kaga running up to Umi with two handfuls of glowing white sand and Fury's banner strapped to her back. She held them out to the old woman and started chattering at her as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “Did you do this? I think you did this. I've been looking at it and, wow, it's so much! Did you go and get them all one at a time just tonight? Is each piece of sand keyed to a master grain that you made glow? Did you make it jump from one to the other somehow? I can't tell how you did it but it's great! Can you teach me the trick? Please?!”

    The silence that reigned then was one born of mortification. From the corner of his eye, Ozzie could see Fury's face contorted in a strange way. Anger? No, not that. He turned his head a little and got a better look. She was trying not to laugh. That was... odd. Ozzie wouldn't have guessed the woman had a sense of humor. He looked to the other side and saw Elle had an indulgent smile on her face. The others around them seemed shocked and a little horrified, but these two were clearly amused.

    Umi was as well, as it turned out. She reached out and patted Kaga on the head, right between her cat ears. “You were able to come up with those ideas at your age, eh? Clever. Cleverer than most mortals I've met, I think. Either of those tricks would work, and I can show you how to do them, but I did it the old fashioned way. One by one. Took me a good fifteen minutes.”

    “Only fifteen minutes?” Kaga looked up and down the beach, then back to Umi. “Wow! You're kinda scary.” Despite the words, Kaga seemed perfectly comfortable standing near her and talking to her. “Oh! You should meet Fury. She's scary too. Fury!” Kaga spotted her in the crowd and beckoned her over. “Look, she's scary like you! She's gonna teach me things. Oooh, you should fight her! You said you wanted to fight someone strong, and she's super strong. I don't think you can beat her!”

    Fury had started laughing around when Kaga called the old witch scary, and she was still chuckling as she was called over. She took a few steps forward and cleared her throat. “Not unless she gives me a reason, Kaga. Come here, let them talk, you can harass her later.”

    “Kay!” Kaga grinned up at Umi before jogging over to Fury. She crouched down and started drawing figures in the sand, but from what Ozzie could see of them they were not childish drawings but rather runes one would expect to see involved in magic of some kind. They weren't doing anything, so clearly they weren't being imbued with any magical power, but it was still a little odd nonetheless.

    Umi clapped her hands, pulling attention back to herself. “Now, before anything else, I'm going to need payment for my guidance. I need a hero's heart, and I'm sure you have a hero or two among you.” She looked to Grumpy, then to Fury, then to Ozzie. He froze and stared at her, unable to read anything in those silver eyes, and he was not at all pleased about being included in that statement. “One of these three, I think. Choose as you will.”

    The uproar that followed the witch's matter-of-fact request for a death was almost deafeningly loud. Ozzie heard calls for the witch's head, others saying they knew it was a horrible idea to come here, and a few along the lines of 'kill the monster' that he supposed could have been directed at either him or Umi. Grumpy raised a hand to the crowd, but it took them a long while to finally quiet down, and they only managed to get down to the rumbling background noise of dozens of people muttering and whispering.

    “Why did you call us here offering guidance if you were going to put a foolish price on it?” Grumpy's voice was tight with restrained anger. His fists were held clenched at his sides, and Ozzie suspected the only reason he hadn't already exploded at the old witch was because he had been advised to show her the utmost respect.

    “Foolish?” Umi chuckled and reached up to pat Grumpy on the cheek. The clan leader flinched away at first, then stood his ground and let it happen. “There are things at work far more important than your little mortal minds can comprehend. I could always just take what I need, but I'm being kind and letting you choose your sacrifice. I can assure you that the price of a single life is quite small for what will be gained in the end. I can also assure you that you are in dire need of my assistance. Where exactly will you go, what exactly will you do, if you have no guidance? You are lost children trying to meddle with the fate of the world.” She waved a dismissive hand in Grumpy's face. “Go, go, be a leader and pick one of the others to die. Don't take to long or I'll do it myself, and I'm liable to pick you for asking such a stupid question.”

    Ozzie opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get a word out he felt something roughly jammed into his mouth. It was so sudden that he couldn't react at all. Reaching up to pull at it, he could feel it was a length of rope about an inch wide, pulling his lips back like the wielder was ready to pull the top of his head off. His tongue was pressed down and the only sounds he could get out were alarmed gurgles.

    “Here, right here!” The one holding the rope called out, presumably to the witch. Ozzie recognized the voice: Hastur, one of the thugs of the Bear Clan who seemed to lick Grumpy's boots like they were covered in honey rather than mud and shit. There were dozens like him, and if someone was going to offer Ozzie up to die then it made perfect sense that it would be one of their ilk. “If he's a choice, then he should be the one to die.”

    Ozzie struggled against the rope and clawed at the hands holding it, but others rushed forward to help keep hold of him. He saw Elle Joyner being gently pushed out of the way as she tried to protest, and Grumpy stood staring at him with his arms crossed and a pensive frown on his face. Umi just watched the struggle without expression, catching his eyes but still showing nothing at all in those ancient silver depths. He felt like his heart was going to pound its way out through his ribs. The gang of thugs hauled him up onto their shoulders and pulled him forward, ready to offer him up to the witch. Ozzie tried to form words, to shout something to save himself, but the rope garbled it and nothing happened. This was it, this was exactly the kind of thing he'd feared. He was going to die. He heard the rasping sound of steel against leather and thought his time was up, that someone in the crowd wouldn't wait until the witch got her hands on him, they were going to take care of it themselves.

    “Let him go.”

    Ozzie couldn't twist his head around to see who spoke, but he recognized her voice: Fury. The men and women in the group holding him, and those watching, seemed confused. They shouted questions, and she raised her voice over them to give answer.

    “He's no monster. He's just an idiot. He spared my life the other day when he could have killed me. I tried to kill him, but he let me live. Idiot, not monster. Ask him what happened to those girls, hear the story for yourselves, and you'll understand. He spared me, so I owe him. It's as simple as that.” The crowd rumbled with more discontent and confusion, but those holding Ozzie did not free him. He heard Fury's voice call out again, this time seeming fainter. He supposed she'd turned away to yell in the other direction. “Witch! I challenge you to a duel. You win, you kill me and you get your heart. I win, I spare you and you repay the debt by helping us.”

    That set the gathered clansfolk roaring with anger and disapproval once more. Some of those holding Ozzie up pulled away, and he was able to wriggle off the others to fall to the group. Hastur came with him, holding the rope tight, and then dragged him up to his feet with that grip. It felt like the rope was going to cut through his cheeks at any moment, but no hot flow of blood came, no meaty tearing sound, and he counted himself lucky for it. From this new position he was able to see Fury, holding her sword out and pointed toward Umi. Grumpy was standing beside her hurriedly speaking into her ear, but she was only shaking her head in response. Kaga had the banner out and was trying to yell over the crowd, and he could catch bits of her high-pitched voice now and then, giving the same list of titles and accolades she'd called out for Fury before.

    The Witch of the Water snapped her fingers and the rabble of sound went away in an instant. Mouths still moved, people were still angrily gesturing, but all Ozzie could hear was the gentle crash of the waves for a few seconds. Hastur let go of him and moved away, leaving him to pull the rope from his mouth and rub at the raw wounds on his lips and cheeks. The silent shouts turned rather quickly to what would have been worried and frightened babbling, but still nobody made any noise. The old woman, however, was not affected by her own magic: her voice rang clear and unimpeded. “That is a brave offer, but a foolish one. I warn you now that you will die if you fight me. Should you spit in the eye of the gods and manage to beat me, then I shall assist you all for the price of my own life. Retract your challenge or come forth, the choice is yours.”

    Fury's voice was similarly unaffected by whatever the witch had done. She stepped forward, sword held at the ready; hands reached out to try to stop her, but she shrugged them off. “You speak too much.” Fury continued walking forward. Umi backed away, seeming totally unworried, and kept on moving until they were a reasonable distance away from the crowd of clan folk. Umi snapped her fingers again and sounds came crashing back to life all around Ozzie, shouting and cheering and hollering like they were all determined to defeat the witch with noise alone.

    Umi finally stopped and curtsied to her opponent, a peculiarly delicate motion complete with a respectful bob of the head. Fury gave a bow instead. That seemed to be all the formality there would be to this fight. Fury rushed forward, kicking up glowing white sand with each extraordinarily long stride. The witch's form shimmered and twisted, and suddenly there was a glistening black spider where she had been. It was massive, its bulbous body large enough to hold two men and each leg rising a good two feet above Fury's head before arching back down to connect with the body. The only thing it lacked was menacingly large fangs; the spider's head was appropriately large, but it seemed to have no fangs at all.

    The sudden change in her opponent did not seem to bother Fury at all. She rushed in, dodged a spike-ended leg that darted forward in an attempt to skewer her, and got in close. Her sword moved almost too fast for Ozzie to see it, but two audible cracks rang out and the spider's front-left leg was a twisted mess broken in two places. The spider-witch hissed, and Ozzie thought it was more in annoyance than pain, then a few legs shot forth to stab at Fury. She mostly warded them off, dancing back with light steps in the sand leaving behind only a few drops of blood from a light graze on her left arm. A huge cheer went up from the clan folks, and Fury rushed right back in. This time she faked to the right, then spun left past a stabbing leg and ran down the spider's right side, hacking at three of the legs as she passed. The spider stumbled as it turned to face her, and another cheer filled the air. Ozzie looked round and saw that the only person nearby joining him in concerned silence was Elle Joyner. He went to stand next to her, near the front of the crowd, to watch and hope that the fight was going as well as it seemed rather than being a deception as it felt to him in that moment.

    As if on cue to dash Ozzie's hopes, the spider's form twisted and changed in the blink of an eye. A huge bear with snow-white fur charged at Fury, brushing off a glancing sword strike to its shoulder and lashing at her with claws and teeth. Fury bashed the beast's head with the pommel of her sword to daze it and pull away, and this time she left a very clear trail of blood on the sand. Her face was set in a determined grimace as she ran at the bear, sword held up high. Just as it looked like she was about to swing, and as the bear was lifting a paw to ward off the attack, she jumped high and landed on the beast's back. Her sword moved like lightning, hacking a web of blood and gore into the bear's back before it could push up into a standing position to force her off. More cheers sprang up from the crowd, but still Ozzie remained quiet, feeling uneasy about the whole thing. He spotted a strange haze in the air, like the shimmering air in a hot desert that made people see things that weren't there, but this was off near the edge of the water a dozen feet from the nearest clan warrior and had nothing to do with heat. It was rather suspicious, so he started pushing through the people to get closer to it, keeping an eye on the fight as he went.

    Fury was forced to retreat quickly as the bear's form twisted into something far larger, the blood and fur on the ground from the bear's form disappearing entirely. A large pinkish-grey limb swept out and nearly grabbed Fury. It was attacked to what looked like a sack with eyes, and there were a lot of other long limbs, each with strange little circles on the underside. Ozzie had no name for the creature, but it was huge and its flailing limbs could threaten the lone warrior from all angles. He was tempted to call out for the other clan folk to assist her, but he knew it would be useless. Duels were a matter of honor, and anyone who interfered in one was killed as subhuman scum. While Fury had seemed to move quickly before, it seemed that hadn't been all she was capable of, and Ozzie started wondering if she used some kind of magic. The warrior became almost a blur as she ran and leapt and spun through the air, taking her blade to every bit of the monster it could reach. Huge lengths of the ends of two of them flopped to the sand in short order, and Fury made progress toward the center of the beast. It was absolutely absurd, and Ozzie realized he was damned lucky he had faced her and come away alive.

    He edged toward the strange shimmer in the air as the fight continued, squinting to try to keep it in his sights. He suspected the beasts were some kind of trick, summoned while the witch hid out of sight, and if that was the case then this had to be her hiding place. As Ozzie broke from the gathered clan folk roaring as they watched the fight, he dashed up to that spot with hands outstretched, hoping to grab the hiding witch and pull her out into the open. It wasn't that he had any fondness for Fury, he just didn't want to see anyone die any more, and she was part of “anyone.” The shimmer didn't move or change as he ran up to it, and he was sure he'd gotten her by surprise when his arms passed through the edges of it... and grabbed nothing. His momentum carried him through the strange patch of air without feeling a thing. He turned round and found it still there, and also spotted a couple people looking at him in confusion, but he ignored them. Ozzie walked forward carefully this time, slowly waving his hands through that shimmer and trying to feel something, but to no avail. After a minute or so he turned back to the fight, frustrated and more certain than ever that some game was afoot and the other shoe would drop at any moment.

    Fury had hacked her way through most of four of those long appendages, leaving four more swatting at her as she closed in on the beast's head. As Ozzie turned to watch, another one went flopping onto the sand. He could see her shoulders heaving as she breathed, and a sheen of sweat reflected the white light of the sand. It didn't take a genius to see Fury was nearing her limit, but she pressed on. Another backflip over a swiping limb was followed up with a quick chop to sever it near the base. Though the limbs were large, it seemed they lacked the dexterity to be true threats to her. She charged the head, slicing the remaining two as they tried to stop her. With another leap she landed on top of it, between its large yellow eyes.

    “You've lost. Surrender.” The point of Fury's sword dug into the creature's flesh, pointed downward and poised to be stabbed down into its head. The watchers cheered her pronouncement, but Ozzie knew it wasn't over. He didn't know how, he could just feel that there was more to come. The sword sank in deeper, giving mortal threat to Fury's words. The creature's limbs flailed uselessly, as if in panic. For a moment, just a fleeting moment, Ozzie doubted his instincts.

    And then the thing's form twisted once more, and as it changed all the hacked off limbs and puddles of blood faded away into nothingness. This time it was no animal or monster that appeared, but rather a person. Ozzie recognized her immediately: this was the young woman he'd thought he had hallucinated. Fury fell to the ground beside her, sword diverting to try to plunge into her, but the nude woman slipped out of the way with ease. There was only a brief pause before Fury's assault resumed its blistering pace, but there was something quite different about this phase of the fight. The woman moved like flowing water, smooth shifts back and to the side getting her just out of the path of the swinging blade with no apparent effort spent. Ozzie was certain this must be the witch's true form, which made sense once he took a moment to think about it: Immortals did not age, so why in the world would one of them appear as a wrinkly old crone if not for the sake of deception?

    It took a bit for the clan folk to catch on to what was happening. At first they kept on cheering, surely thinking there was no way some young woman with no weapons or armor could stand against their greatest warrior. Then they saw how Fury was accomplishing nothing at all with the blistering assault, and the cheers faded into tense murmurs. Fury herself realized the trouble as well, and so she stopped, holding her sword up in both hands in a defensive posture. She sucked in huge breaths and waited to see what the witch in this humanoid form would do.

    Umi did not leave her waiting. She took a couple steps back and lifted both hands out to the side. Lights formed around her hands, little orange motes like stray embers blown by the wind, and then swirled around them and started to grow brighter. Fury was smart enough to not let her do as she wished with magic, and she charged in again with sword swinging. It was very different this time. Umi did not dodge and retreat, she stood her ground and blocked the sword with those rings of light spinning around her open hands. One of them grazed across Fury's side, and even over the crashing waves Ozzie could hear the searing and sizzling of flesh being burned. In a moment when the sword was almost still on the backswing he could see deep grooves melted into the blade. It was over. It was only a matter of time until Fury lost, now.

    A deft twist of Umi's left hand snapped the blade off a few inches above the guard, leaving Fury effectively defenseless. She flipped the broken weapon around in her hand, lunging in for a downward stabbing attack. Umi's right hand pulled back, hand held with fingers outstretched, and the lights disappeared around it. Ozzie could vividly see what came next: the hand would stab into Fury like a blade, blood would pour out of the wound to mar the sand, and then it would be over. He had to do something, and there was only one thing he could do.

    “Halt!” Ozzie's voice rang out with the bite of command, and he could feel his power infuse it. Everyone froze, even Umi, and he hurried forward. He was already an outcast they wanted to kill, so what if he did something dishonorable again? He would whisper in Fury's ear to release her, and she would have her win over the witch. It was simple, scummy but simple.

    “Interesting trick.” Umi's voice was no longer the crone's voice filled with age and bile. It had a more musical quality now, and if Ozzie had been told that such was the voice of a goddess he probably would have believed it. Her head slowly turned to face him, which absolutely should not have happened. Anything he told to halt was supposed to stay put, but here the witch was defying what he had always thought of as an absolute power. His steps slowed as he approached, trying to wrap his head around it, but she seemed perfectly content to keep on talking as more and more of her body slowly moved and jerked free of the binding hold. “You've got powerful blood to manage that. I thought the last of your kind had died out a few generations ago. The mixed bloodlines of god and Immortal was always seen as a fearsome threat amongst mortals. Not so amongst my kind.” As she spoke she had done a fine job of proving why Immortals had little reason to fear Ozzie's power. By the time she was done speaking, Umi was fully free of the hold. She gave him a pitying little smile, took a few steps back from Fury, and took up a similar stance to that which she was frozen in. “Release them before they suffocate, fool.”

    That shocked Ozzie out of his stupor. “Release!” The sound of coughing and wheezing from the clan folk filled the air, but Fury herself came out of it breathing easy, taking deep but slow breaths. She shot an annoy glance at Ozzie, shook her head, and then focused on the witch once more. She stalked forward slowly, broken weapon still held with the jagged end pointed the wrong way around. This time there was no mad rush, no attempt to overwhelm the witch, just the careful approach.

    “I did tell you you were going to die if you fought me, mortal.” Umi's voice held no pity, no remorse, just the bland tone of one speaking simple facts. “I'll grant you a painless death if you're finished fighting. Or are you the sort who demands to go down swinging? I'll oblige you either way, but I do need that heart and we've other business to attend to so make up your mind quickly dear.”

    Ozzie could see only the side of Fury's face, but he thought she looked... resigned. There was no drive to win, no fear, just an acceptance of her fate. Even so, she made a good effort of it. She picked up her pace and made as if to swing the broken blade, but at the last moment she darted to the side, spun the weapon around, and hurled it at the witch. The broken sword landed clean, stabbing into Umi's left shoulder. A brief wince of pain flashed across her face and she gave Fury a little nod of acknowledgment, then Fury was hurrying in to fight hand to hand.

    It wasn't even a contest at that point. Umi's left arm hung limp at her side, but she went back to sliding away from attacks, making Fury look like she was trying to catch fog in her hands. Then suddenly they froze. Ozzie hadn't even seen the strike being made, and he couldn't see the damage done from this angle. They'd gotten turned a bit in the brief scrap, and Fury was looking over the witch's shoulder with the whites of her eyes showing all around. They focused for a moment on Ozzie, and all he could read there was shock. Then they slid closed and the warrior went limp against the witch.

    Umi went down on one knee, gently rolling Fury's still body off of her to lay in the sand amidst a growing pool of blood. Her right hand was buried past the wrist in Fury's chest, and it took her a few seconds to work it free with the heart clasped in her fingers with strings of gore dangling and dripping blood. She stood then, ignoring the body entirely now that she'd gotten her prize. She seemed to have no problem at all with standing there nude and covered in a spray of blood, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Ozzie had thought her a vision of beauty when he first caught a glimpse of her, but now he felt like he was going to throw up. Her eyes snapped up to meet his and a little grin spread on her face. He wondered again if she could read his thoughts, and this time he received an answer. Her voice rattled through his skull without having bothered to come through his ears.

    That blood of yours has its weaknesses. I can't help but hear some of your thoughts, especially when you get all worked up like this. I'll teach you a way to mask it, else you'll just be a liability in the fights to come.

    Umi turned away from him then, facing the hushed crowd of clan folk to speak aloud. “Well then, even if she was the best among you, I think I chose well in sending my messengers to you lot. With another couple decades of experience she could have killed me. Impressive, for a mortal.” Her form shimmered again, and in the blink of an eye she was the old crone again, still holding the heart in a wrinkly hand. “Now that that's out of the way, make yourselves at home. We'll get to the other business in the morning. I'm sure you'll want the time to give her the proper honors anyway.” With that the witch headed for her hut, to do only the gods knew what with her prize. Ozzie saw that strange patch of light floating along by her side, and he was still horribly confused as to what it was.

    Grief and nausea were the ruling feelings of the moment though. He'd thought Fury still wanted to kill him. He hadn't had any idea that she'd decided otherwise after their confrontation. Finding out that she had been a potential ally, then seeing her heart ripped out, was a horrible blow. Kaga was the first to reach her body, but the little Neko girl had no tears in her eyes, just a thoughtful frown. She put Fury's head in her lap and started brushing the sand out of the hair. Grumpy arrived soon thereafter, with Hastur on his heels, and they and other warriors stood over the body in silence, witnessing the bloody aftermath to honor her glorious defeat as was their custom. Elle Joyner joined Kaga in preparing the body. Fury's corpse would be given the highest honors, surely. She would be placed on a pyre to burn away the flesh and set the spirit free to join their warrior ancestors in the great beyond. All warriors who died in battle received this rite, as well as respected elders and women who died in the birthing bed. Those who lived and died well were honored and sent off with respect. That was one aspect of the clan culture that Ozzie had always loved, even though he knew he would never earn such from his people.

    He wasn't sure when the tears started leaking out of his eyes, or when he'd fallen to his knees in the sand, but he found himself there after shaking himself from thoughts of funerary rites. A dark little thought wormed its way into him: It should have been me, I should have died. He didn't even bother trying to push it away. Probably everyone else here was thinking it, so why shouldn't he? It only made sense. She was amazingly strong, and he was just an outcast with the curse of blood he'd never asked for. He couldn't take his eyes off of the scene of stoic grieving in front of him, a corpse ringed with silent warriors and the banner of a mountain rising above them, with glowing white sand and the dark sea as a dramatic background. Something about that clicked in his mind, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea at all.

    The mountain meets the sea and stands tall, but the sea swallows it whole.

    A line from the prophecy, one of the three visions said to foretell the rise of shadows of old. Ozzie knew now that they were supposed to mean the dark gods were free, signs that should prove it without a shadow of a doubt to all people with ears to hear. He wasn't sure he'd seen anything that could be said to meet the first sign, but if the second had played out here, with a warrior who took the sign of the mountain slain by a witch of the sea, then he supposed it must have happened already. Everyone had been sure that some mountain was going to be pulled into the ocean, but Ozzie now felt certain this was the truth of the prophecy. It was never meant to be a literal mountain, it was all symbols and riddles.

    None of that made him feel better. The dark gods were truly freed, no matter whatever doubts he had harbored, and the clans had just lost perhaps the greatest warrior of their generation. It was depressing and demoralizing to say the least. If the greatest among them could not best a single Immortal, what in the world were they supposed to do against gods? No answers were forthcoming from the quiet mourning crowd, or the sand, or the sea, or the night sky. Ozzie was left to sit and wonder in silence, trying to ignore his own tears and the darker thoughts rolling around in side his head. Ozzie hoped that whatever the witch had to say would offer them hope, because from where he sat it seemed hope was nowhere to be found.

    Everything was made a blur by speed of passage, trees and plants zipping by before the raven had any chance to make out details. He knew any observers would spot the unnatural blue glow around his body, but that couldn't be avoided. The time was now past for hiding and waiting and watching. He'd been wrong, so very wrong, and he hadn't prepared anything at all. He'd been expecting the Lord of Destruction to return in a new form, and that was something he'd been prepared for. In fact he'd been made for just that purpose. Neither he nor his creator had foreseen the Lord of Destruction sending a minion after Eles, and that had the potential to ruin everything. He could still hear the distant sound of trees being knocked out of the way not too terribly far behind him.

    The sun was headed toward the western horizon, but there were still a couple of hours until it fully set. Eles would not last that long. Panic flowed through the raven like a raging river, and he cursed Jorick for making him capable of such damnable emotions. He needed to get as many people out of the town as possible. He couldn't just go door to door telling people, he had to be smart about it. There was only one place he could think of that might have enough people to tell so they could spread the word, the place they'd taken all the injured folks the other day. He hoped people were still awake at this hour, else far too much time would be wasted waking them to tell them of their impending doom.

    The raven spotted the building, and an open window into the main room, and did not waste any time mucking about with doors and the like. He darted into the window, found a clear space amidst what seemed to be a couple dozen people gathered there, and transformed into his true shape. Black feathers gave way to brown flesh as his form expanded into that of an elf, a male appearing roughly twenty years old, though in truth he had only been created a decade ago. The only remnants of his raven form were the coal-black mop of hair the same color as the wings and his red eyes. He was clothed in a simple loincloth, just barely enough to keep him decent, which Jorick had made sure he knew was important to mortals. The room had been full of noise when he flew in, but by the time he stood before them as a man they were all rather quiet. Someone else spoke before he could breath in an launch into his warning.

    “See? I told you all, she said the bird wasn't a bird. Guess she was right.”

    He spun around to see a woman, the one who'd been walking with the Immortal who saw through his guise. She'd seemed to be in charge around here, so he was glad to see her. He stared for a few seconds, trying to remember how greetings were supposed to work, and then bowed. Bowing was supposed to be done to those in positions worthy of respect, after all. As he remained bent forward, staring at the wooden floor, he spoke to the woman before more interruptions could spring up.

    “You are all going to die if you do not flee. An army of unlife is coming. They will be here soon. Please warn everyone. I know where to go. I can lead you. Please hurry.”

    The silence that descended on the room then was somehow different from the one before. He wasn't sure how. It felt heavier, and he wasn't sure how a lack of noise could have a weight to it, but that was how it felt. This humanoid body was strange and felt things in ways that made little sense when he hadn't experienced it in a long time, but there was nothing to do but bear the oddities and push through them.

    “Stand up, kid. You don't need to keep eyeballing the floor.” He followed the command and saw the important woman frowning at him. That was bad, frowning was a sign of displeasure. Or maybe that was to be expected given the news? It was hard to say. “What's your name?”

    He froze. Did he have a name? He'd never needed a name. Names were important though, he knew that. Jorick had never called him any name, and after he was sent out into the world he never bothered interacting with those who might give him one. It was a glaring oversight now that he thought about it, but then he was never supposed to converse with people, just quietly lead them toward the hiding place. He shook his head, for it was the only answer he could give.

    The woman grunted, shaking her head. “Look kid, we're not going to trust some stranger, even if he did just magically appear out of a damn bird. What's your name? Where'd you come from? How do we know you aren't an enemy?”

    It was a bewildering array of questions. How could she be asking such pointless things when death was marching toward them as they wasted time here? Even with the mental objections, he had to answer as best he could, because it would have been rude to do otherwise and rudeness turned mortals away. “I do not have a name. I came from outside.” He paused, realizing after he said it that the question was more expansive than he had assumed. “I was created and sent by Jorick to watch over this town. I have been watching for two years, seven months, and eight days. I have done you no harm in that time. I am only trying to help you. Please warn everyone. Tell them to head for the mountain. We have little time to talk.”

    The people in the room started talking after that, and it seemed many of them were concerned about his statement of watching them for so long. He was rather confused by that. Why would they be worried about that which already passed rather than the destruction headed their way? They seemed not to believe him either. Someone yelled that he should be locked up. He started backing away, looking around at the clamoring crowd with wide eyes, but the stern woman reached out and grabbed his arm with an iron grip. She shouted for the others to hush, and they mostly complied.

    “Boy,” she started, then wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “I'm going to call you Raven. Is that alright?” He stared at her, thinking it over. Raven. It was descriptive and suitable. He nodded. “Okay then, Raven, I'm Allie. Now, I'm not sure you're telling the truth, but maybe you have some kind of proof, something that could—“ A pounding noise distracted her and she looked away, off toward the door. Raven could feel someone there, someone he hadn't sensed in all the bewildering chaos, but they were definitely living so it was alright. One of the men standing near the door went over to open it, and the person pounding on the door practically fell in, stumbling forward and almost tripping.

    Raven recognized her immediately on sight. The woman was a dryad, and he could see the people in the room staring at her with some fear and confusion. That made sense; dryads were known to be secretive creatures who rarely left the wild forests they called home. She looked almost like a human built out of plants. Instead of skin she had bark, white with black streaks, and where hair would be she instead had a protrusion of vines cascading down her back. Her eyes glowed luminous green, just light set in the bark face under mossy brows, no pupil or iris to be seen. Raven had sensed her a few times when flying far away from Eles, but he'd left her to her solitary life tending the forest so he doubted she had ever noticed him as anything more than a bird flying high overhead.

    “Monsters!” The dryad gasped the word out. “Abominations! They're coming. Been running all day. Need water. Need to run more.” She took a few wobbling steps toward a table and reached for a metal tankard sitting there.

    “Whoa there!” Allie hurried forward, taking the dryad by an arm and handing her a smaller wooden cup instead. “I don't know if you'd enjoy the ale. This is water.” The dryad took it with a grateful nod and drank it all in on go. She stood there panting for air, and Raven could hear her bark skin creaking and straining with the effort. Curious. Perhaps dryads were not designed for physical exertion.

    The people were all chattering again. Raven ignored them and walked up to Allie, tapping her on the shoulder. She looked at him with one eyebrow raised, and he pointed to the dryad. “Proof.”

    Allie frowned at him, but she nodded. “Aye, proof. You said we should head for the mountain, right?” Raven nodded. She sighed and turned to the yammering crowd. “Alright, listen up! We can't ignore two separate warnings. Go, all of you, tell everyone to flee for the mountain. We'll send someone to the military outpost if we can, but I'm not sure what, if anything, they'll be able to do for us, bunch of lazy shits.” A round of grumbling agreement rose around the room. “I'd rather trust our legs than their wits and effort. Tell folks to pack light, make it quick, and gather over by Tari's home. And you.” Allie turned her attention back to Raven as the others in the room started shuffling toward the door while carrying on conversations. “If you've been watching the town, you know the house that's set out a ways to the northwest. Go there, tell them I sent you, and tell them what's happening. Tell them everyone is going to meet at their house in... How long until these monsters arrive, anyway?”

    Raven thought about it, calculating their speed and the distance and how far they had traveled since he last saw them. It took only a few moments; he had been made with a very efficient brain. “Five minutes and twenty-four seconds until they reach this building, assuming small groups break off to attack each building in the way rather than the whole horde stopping for each one.” The dryad murmured an agreement, then pulled gently away from the human woman and started downing the contents of cups and glasses on nearby tables, apparently not caring if it was water or something else.

    The blood drained from Allie's face. “Okay.” Her voice was eerily calm, even though her eyes seemed full of panic. “Okay. Everyone!” Some had already left to warn people of the coming danger, but at her cry those still in the room turned their attention back to her. “There's no time for packing or gathering before heading out. Just warn everyone you can and run. Gods save us all.”

    That got everyone moving quickly. Raven figured if he had to warn people of an oncoming horde of undeath again, he would start with the estimated time of arrival since it was so very effective to get people moving. Allie ran off toward the set of stairs in the back of the room, leaving Raven and the dryad alone there. He grabbed a few nearby drink containers and carried them over to her, setting them down on the table she was working through, which earned him an appreciative smile. “I am called Raven now. Who are you?”

    “Wyllow. I take—” she grimaced and rephrased, “took care of some ancient trees a ways south of here. They are gone now. I think I'm ready to keep running. The mountain is safe?”

    Raven shook his head. “The mountain will not stop them. They may follow. They may not. I do not know. I need to bring mortals to the mountain for a greater purpose.”

    Wyllow sighed, setting down the last tankard that had contained a drink. “I suppose I'll take the chance that they won't follow, then. Good luck, Raven.” The dryad headed back to the door, her movements far more steady than they had been when she entered not long ago, and disappeared into the evening without another word.

    The sounds of rushing feet upstairs told the tale of Allie getting herself and her family ready to run. There was nothing more he could to for her, so Raven left as well, shifting into his bird form as he exited the building. He had been asked to warn those who lived to the northwest, so he supposed he should do it. As he flew he could hear shouting voices and hands banging on doors. Under that nearby noise he could hear the growing rumbles and crashes of trees falling as the undead horde approached from the south. A glance that way was enough to see the line of destruction in their wake and the tops of trees disappearing from view as they advanced. They were still a few minutes away from hitting the first buildings, and Raven didn't think they would fare any better than the trees.

    The home tucked away in the trees was far enough away that the noises were dulled by distance. Even so, the lights were all on and Raven could see someone hurriedly stuffing things into a sack. He landed in front of the door, shifted to his elf form, and before he could knock on the door it was already swinging open. The Immortal who had seen through his form was standing there, one hand held out and glowing green. It took Raven only a brief moment to process it: plant manipulation, powerful, ready to make living vines sprout from the dead wood of the door frame to subdue or even crush the target. Very dangerous.

    Raven took one small step back and bowed, looking at the doorstep as he spoke. “I am Raven. Allie sent me. I am to warn you of the undead horde. I think you already know about it. I intend to guide—“ A hand reached down and grasped his chin, pulling him upright and holding his mouth shut as well. The Immortal woman turned his face from side to side, peering closely at him with an intensity that made him nervous. He could see an elf with ink dripping from her scalp still running around inside packing things, and as he was being examined a Lizardwoman with green scales came hurrying out of a back hall with bags stuffed full of books and paper.

    “Construct. Unnatural. Well-made though. Who created you?” The Immortal's words were quiet and thoughtful.

    “Jorick. He sent me to—“

    The hand on his jaw pushed up and held firm, and those silver eyes burned into him. “Jorick. Of course. With Umi's assistance, I've no doubt. Do not speak your reason for being here aloud. You never know who's listening in, and I think I know your true purpose regardless. Did you see who's controlling the undead?” The hand loosened its grip enough so he could speak.

    “An Immortal. Dark hair, tall, scar across his face. I think he was speaking to a ghost.”

    She let him go, and as she did her face fell. She looked tired all of the sudden. “Speaker of the Dead. I always thought he must have lived. We never did find a body.” She sighed and waved him inside. “They're almost to the town. Make yourself useful and help these two get going. Keep them safe, if you can. They're good people.”

    The Immortal woman made to leave, but the Lizardwoman called out to her. “Grene, where are you going? I thought you said running was our only chance.”

    Grene stopped and looked back over her shoulder. Her voice took on a bright and chipper tone. “I did. Don't worry, Tari, I'll catch up. You and Moody should get going as fast as possible. I'm just going to go delay him as long as I can. The longer I can hold the creatures back, the more people will get out safely. I can't just abandon them without trying.” As she turned away from the mortal women, Raven saw the smile drop from her face like a rock. He saw a look on her face that he'd seen only a few times before, when Jorick was talking about how his death would be the beginning of the end of a history of tragedy and pain. It had taken Raven a while to understand that look, but he now knew what it meant. Grene was prepared to die.

    He gave her a respectful bow of the head as she passed, then hurried on inside to help Tari and Moody get going. Perhaps one of them would be worthy, since they already had the approval of one Immortal. Only time would tell, and that only if they made it to the mountain alive. At least there was some good hope of that now, with Grene going to sacrifice herself to buy time. Raven would be sure not to waste it, and he would see to it that as many people as possible made it to the mountain and up to what waited for a worthy mortal atop it.

    “Go!” Allie screamed the word at her kids, shooing them off with the large cast-iron frying pan held tight in her right hand. They could hear screams and shouts and the snapping of wood off to the south, and she could see a few people fighting with some of the undead that must have hurried ahead of the main bulk of the monsters. Her husband had been among those who ran off to warn folks of the coming attack and he was not back yet. That was part of the reason she wasn't leaving just yet. The other part was that, quite simply, if her life would buy even a few seconds of time for her children to get away then it was well worth the cost. She'd already hurriedly given them instructions, which direction to go and who to look for in case she couldn't catch up with them quickly, but they were reluctant to leave her. “Now! No arguments, go!”

    Another scream ripped through the air, this time closer than any of the others. Allie looked up to see a woman with a bony little creature chewing its way through her stomach, only perhaps a hundred feet away. That seemed to be enough to get the kids moving; they turned and ran, off to the northwest as instructed. Allie murmured a little prayer to the gods, hoping that they were listening, to keep them safe from these horrible monsters. Once they were safely away she started calling for her husband, yelling his name as loud as she could to be heard over the sounds of fighting and dying, all the while frantically looking for him. A horrible gnawing voice in the back of her head said that he was dead, he must have gone south to warn some of his friends who lived on that side of Eles and was one of those caught by the creatures. She tried to keep that and the fear and the panic at bay by thinking that he must have done as she said, he must have warned some people and started running rather than coming back for them. She would forgive him for scaring her, of course, as long as he was alive. If he was dead then she was going to chase his spirit down and beat it to death for being stupid enough to get himself killed.

    In her frantic yelling and looking she almost didn't notice that the man shambling toward her was not a normal person. It moved with unnatural stiffness, and once her eyes focused on it she saw it only had half a face, the rest gone to show bone smeared with dried blood. It was reaching out for her, and his hand was a twisted and bloody mess. It took her a second to realize it was one of the monsters and that it was trying to kill her. That was a surreal thought, like something coming from outside of her head while she watched herself standing there staring at the monster like an idiot. It's going to kill me. That was another odd though. An unpleasant one. She didn't want to die. She couldn't die, not now, not while people needed her.

    The frying pan slammed into the side of the undead man's head before Allie realized she'd decided to swing it. The flat bottom of it slammed into the faceless side of its head, and iron proved stronger than bone. Its skull caved in, and it let out a strange gurgling sound before collapsing in a limp heap on the ground. She couldn't take more than a moment to stare at it because another shambling corpse was headed toward her. Allie screamed and swung her pan at that one's head too, and this time the side of it crashed through bone and rotted brain and left another unmoving body on the ground with gore spread all around. Part of her wanted to be horrified and vomit at the awful sight, but another part of her was deeply satisfied. Every pained scream she heard was another person she knew being torn to shreds by these monsters. They deserved to be destroyed.

    A skittering little creature made of bone leapt at her, something that might have once been a fox or other small mammal but now had ugly unnatural protrusions of bones pointing out every which way, and she caught it at the last second with a quick backhanded swing with her frying pan. This thing was more resilient than the animated corpses; it skidded back in the dirt, caught itself, and jumped at her again. She swung, but it was ready for that. This time it grabbed onto the edge of the pan and held on tight, weighing it down until she dropped it. A few of its bones snapped as it fell, but it was up and jumping at her within the blink of an eye. Allie reached for her belt knife and managed to get it up just as the thing's claws dug their way into her shoulder. She stabbed and slashed but it didn't seem to do anything, and it clambered toward her face with a malformed jaw snapping at her. The knife caught on a bone and was torn from her grasp. She was left with only hands to try to push the thing off, but it wasn't working. It took her a moment to realize the angry growling sound was coming from her own throat, not the creature trying to kill her; it produced no sound but the clatter of bones as it moved, silently seeking her throat with its jagged teeth and growing closer and closer by the second.

    “Hands down!”

    Allie wasn't sure where the shout came from, but she dropped her hands anyway and hoped for the best. Something smashed into the bone monster and sent it flying. She ripped a few remaining claws free from her skin and looked round to find a hulking giant of a man pulling back an arm holding a huge hammer which had apparently smashed the bone monster to bits. Rook was the sole orc in Eles, and he was the town's blacksmith. Apparently those muscles had served him well; the smithy was off in the southeast corner of town, and here he was with only a few obvious scraped and bruises on him. Better yet, there was a gaggle of others in his wake, sparking hope in her for a moment. Allie looked the group over, seeking a particular face: she saw Candy, Rook's human apprentice boy; Nav, the Kitsune woman who always made a huge cauldron of delicious mushroom soup for the harvest festival; Zuma, the potato farmer who seemed to be carrying a few sacks full of the things; and off in the back was Shizuo, the middle-aged human fellow who was the deftest hand with needle and thread in the whole town.

    Rook noticed what she was looking at and must have seen the hope die in them. He placed a hand on her shoulder, surprisingly gentle for a hand that could crush a skull. “He was the one that came and warned me. Ran on further to warn Shizuo and the others, and he didn't come back. I'm sorry.” As Allie stared up at him she vaguely noticed Zuma shooting potatoes at any creatures that came near. She'd known he had some kind of magic that he said only worked on potatoes, but she'd never thought it could be used as a weapon. What was that he was yelling? 'For the potatoes?' Strange. She wasn't sure why she was paying so much attention to Zuma right now. It was like her mind just didn't want to face what Rook was saying.

    “He got to me safe,” Shizuo said as he stepped forward, and Allie was tugged from her absent thoughts, though once her eyes met his she wished she hadn't looked his way. His drooping face and watery eyes told the tale before he got the words out. “I was already heading out. Told him to come back with me, but the old feller who lives out just past me hadn't showed up, and he said he couldn't just leave someone...” He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Those things weren't far behind me by the time I met up with Rook, and I didn't see him or the old feller. Sorry Allie. I'm so sorry.” Shizuo hurried past her and headed northwest, off toward the mountain like all the others.

    Rook gave Allie a little nudge with his comforting hand, getting her turned in the right direction. “We have to go. These little shits are like the scouts. The army's coming behind us.” She let him guide her, trying to hold it together. Her husband was dead. He had to be. He might become one of these things that were destroying Eles. That was awful, but she couldn't really feel anything about it. Probably a bad thing, but for the moment she was glad. She felt hollow. Tears would come, she was sure. For now she just kept moving forward, letting Rook guide her, then keeping on going when he called Candy over to act as her guide so he could help kill the monsters in their way. She realized she was still holding on to her frying pan, and for a moment she considered dropping it, but then she decided to keep it. Her husband had paid good money for this pan, so she just couldn't leave it behind.

    Shortly after Rook went away to help fight, Allie saw all the creatures ahead of them suddenly stop in place. Something had shot out of the ground and wrapped all around them. Odd. As Candy hustled her around one she thought they looked like plants. She couldn't figure that out, but that was fine. It gave her something to think about that wasn't the thing she didn't want to think about right now. She just had to not think about that and keep running and make it to the woods and find her kids and— How was she going to tell them about their father? That broke something inside of her. Allie felt hot tears sliding down her face and her breaths turned to shaking sobs. She heard someone yelling behind them, but she couldn't make out the words, and she wouldn't have cared to listen even if she could. Her husband was dead and she was going to have to tell her kids that their father was gone and she just didn't know how to handle that. She could have handled the monsters and the killing and all of that, but this was too much.

    Allie kept on going, feeling like she was leaving half of her heart behind to be devoured by undead abominations, but she couldn't let that stop her. She was going to live, no matter how much it hurt. She needed to live. She had to take care of her kids. She had to make sure everyone else was okay. But more than even those two important things, the thought that grew from her grief and despair that gave her the will to keep going was a darker one: she needed to live so she could get revenge on the bastards who did this. One way or another, she was going to make sure someone paid for this even she had to die to see it done.

    Grene walked toward the center of Eles with sorrow in her heart and destruction flying from her fingertips. Every undead creature she saw was quickly dispatched with a grasping vine to plunge into its brain or smash it to pieces. They were like ants before her. She had tried to avoid this sort of use of nature, this bastardization of the purity of the plants, since the last time she went off to fight Speaker of the Dead. All she'd wanted was to live in peace among nature, perhaps with a visit to speak with mortals a few times each century. It seemed fate conspired against her though, so all that was left for her to do was make sure she went out fighting for the right side.

    A lumbering monstrosity made of dead trees stomped its way toward her, a disgusting perversion of nature. Grene glared at it and it exploded in a shower of wood chips. There were no more mortals fleeing at that point. The town square ahead was full of undead things storming through, and many lifeless corpses littered the area. Eles had been home to a few hundred people, and she suspected more than half had died today. She couldn't feel any life left nearby in front of her, just a lot of people fleeing to the northwest and a few here and there going other directions. She'd done what she could to help those fleeing toward the mountain, and now that they were safely away she could let loose and see how many off these horrid things she could dispatch before their master could take her down.

    Grene pulled in a huge lungful of air, then added a twist of magic to her words to let them carry louder and farther than she could naturally manage. “Speaker of the Dead! Show yourself!” The mass of undeath turned toward her, drawn by the sound. That was fine. She held her hands out palm up, raised them, and clenched her fists with a flash of green light. Two trees grew a few feet from her, and as the undead things tried to charge past them they were assaulted by the full force of nature. Vines and needles stronger than steel pierced through the heads of the fleshy creatures to demolish their brains, and flailing branches smashed the bone constructs with equal ease. A veritable wall of gore build up around the trees in less than a minute. Grene pulled her clenched fists downward and the earth cracked open, pulling the remains down into newly-made pits of acidic plants that would make short work of flesh and bone alike.

    The monsters swarmed over and through the ruins of buildings, trying to get out of reach of the trees, but they found no safety. The ruins themselves sprung to life with grasping plants. Green tendrils coated in acid flailed and dissolved the undead things in a few seconds, while more mundane vines simply crushed heads and small spiny plants shot razor projectiles. Not one of the monsters made it within twenty feet of her. The barricade of deadly plants was more than enough to take care of such simple things. Grene called out again, not bothering to try to hide the anger in her voice. “Your creations are no match for me. Show yourself, coward!”

    There was no immediate response from the man, but it was obvious he heard. The undead legions immediately pulled back, just out of reach of her plants. They just stood there and watched her for a long few minutes, and she was just about ready to push her assault further when she felt the change. Where before she had felt nothing living beyond her plants, something suddenly appeared. Or rather, something suddenly stopped hiding itself, and it was extremely powerful. It felt closer to a god than to an Immortal, and that worried her deeply. The ranks of monstrosities parted as it approached, and before long he stepped into view.

    Speaker of the Dead showed no fear of her deadly trees. He had no reason to, after all. He walked forward, they tried to attack, and with a flick of a finger they withered into dead husks of what they once were. The rotting wood melded together and formed into another golem, and it was walking to join the ranks of other creatures by the time Speaker of the Dead stopped some ten feet in front of Grene. He looked far more haggard than he had when last they met. His silver eyes were no longer filled with fevered determination. Instead they now looked dull and almost lifeless, like he was a walking corpse too. A jagged scar crossed from the right side of his forehead down to his left cheek, and there was a chunk taken out of the bridge of his nose that was filled in with gnarled scar tissue. That must have been a token of the battle in which many had hoped he died, but here he was in the flesh to make sure those hopes perished.

    He gave her a shallow bow, as if this were a pleasant meeting rather than one that would soon lead to blood, and his banal words matched that impression. “Greetings, Warden of the Woods. Or Grene Briarwood, if you prefer. I have taken the name Holm Shire since last we met, but either name works. It has been so long since we last spoke.”

    “Why?” Grene's question was filled with anger. She was tempted to lash out at him, to turn this into a fight immediately just to spite his false pleasantries, but she held herself back for now. She was going to die, but she wanted to at least die understanding what had corrupted this man who she had once respected and cared for as a brother.

    Holm nodded slowly. “Very well, down to business then. It was complicated years ago, but it has become simple for me. I'm tired of this existence. There is no balance, the world has become chaotic and overrun with mortals. The mortals in turn make it worse, destroying far more than they make and tipping the scales further toward chaos. Working with the Lord of Destruction is the best way to see the world fixed or ended. There is balance in the void, at least, and I shall slide off into nonexistence with contentment in my heart if I know such balance shall be left in my wake.”

    “Bullshit.” Grene practically growled the word at him. “I can see you lack conviction. You don't care about balance any more, and you know as well as I do that the chance for that has long since passed. The mortals are the dominant lifeforms now, and you're just upset that you're being pushed out, like a spoiled child who can't stand letting others have their turn with a toy. Why not just die and leave the rest of us alone in peace if you're so tired of living?”

    He laughed, a brief and dry sound, and gestured back toward the many undead entities still waiting outside of reach of the plants. “Death is not as final as it might seem, as I know better than most. A selfish solution would be no solution at all. I have the best interests of the world in mind, not necessarily my own. The world must be changed, and it can only be done through destruction and the lord thereof, for he is the only one who has the conviction to do it. I lack conviction, yes, but I retain some hope. You seem to have lost that yourself, dear Grene. I hope that balance can be restored, that all living things can live in equilibrium with each other rather than being driven to extinction by living weapons that should never have been suffered to live past the First War.” Holm sighed, then held a hand out to her, palm up in a pleading gesture. “There need be no more fighting between our kind, Grene. Please, join me, or if you cannot bear to do so then at least stand aside. I do not want to mourn another fallen sister.”

    His words dug at Grene's heart. She knew the pain of mourning those she cared for, and she could empathize with that plea. It was tempting, but she knew she could never live with herself if she did it. She would end up another of their kind who ended their own life in despair, and that was a terrible fate that she would not wish on anyone. There was only one thing to do: die honorably and meet death with a clean conscience. They said dead Immortals became stars, and she wanted to shine brightly when she went to join her fallen kin.

    Holm seemed to be able to read her thoughts in her body language. He sighed again, and a tear slipped from his left eye, sliding down along the edge of his scar. “So be it. I will remember your name, Grene, Warden of the Woods. I am sorry, but I must kill you now.”

    For all the remorse and reluctance in his words, the attack was sudden and decisive. Spectral forms holding swords appeared all around Grene and hacked at her from all directions. She quickly covered herself in a thick layer of bark, but it would hold only for so long under the assault. She clapped her hands together and two slabs of stone rose on either side of Speaker of the Dead, rushing in to squash him. He simply held his hands out to either side and the stones crumbled to dust when they touched his hands. That was worrisome indeed; she'd been hoping his deadly powers were confined to slaying the living, but if even inanimate stone was decayed by his touch then there was little hope of taking him down with her.

    Speaker of the Dead walked slowly toward her, hand held out as if still offering her a chance to join him. Those ghostly attackers said otherwise, and she did not look forward to seeing what it felt like to be touched by those murderous hands. Grene wasn't sure what the hell sort of magic he was using, but it had to be something he learned from the Lord of Destruction, for it was far more powerful than anything he had used in the battle ages ago. Whatever it was, she knew that his touch meant death, and he was growing ever closer as the ghosts kept her penned in one place and unable to do much but hold her defenses against their incorporeal forms.

    Grene made a few sharp motions with her fingers and soon there was a veritable wall of plant life between herself and Holm. It fired a barrage of stinging needles at him, thousands of them per second. She could not overcome him with large plants or unliving stone, so her only other reasonable option was to try to overwhelm him. But no, even that proved ineffective. The wall of plants withered as he reached them and pushed through. She could see a multitude of tiny pinpricks all over the front of him, so the needles had made contact, but it seemed they'd lost all their life and force with that contact. That was it. She could only manipulate plants and stone, and neither were going to work on him. Death was inevitable, and she would meet it alone... unless she did something crazy. She'd heard a mortal saying about desperate times, and now she supposed was the right time for a desperate measure.

    Grene reached a hand out as if to catch one of the ghostly blades. It sliced into her palm, down to the bone, and she couldn't help letting out a pained scream. That was good though, pain would help. She clenched her bloodied hand into a fist and held it out toward Holm. Golden light burst forth from it, and the droplets of blood became gold as well. Holm stopped in his tracks and stared at her with obvious worry on his face. He knew exactly what this was, and he had to know he was in trouble if it worked.

    “Lady of Vengeance!” Grene's voice roared out clear and loud, with her face turned upward to face the heavens. “In my time of need I call upon thee! My life is in your hands! Strike down the evil before me, he who has slain countless others, and show him no mercy!”

    Silence. Even the ghosts fell still as Holm watched the sky. After a few seconds he chuckled and shook his head. “You had me for a second there. Invoking a god? They haven't come when called for hundreds of years. Enough of this farce, I—“

    Thunder rumbled in the sky, drawing their eyes upward. Silver light swirled in the dark clouds, and within a few seconds it was a solid disc of spinning light. A bolt of burning light shot out from it, and Holm was forced to take hasty steps backward to get out of the way before it struck the ground right where he'd been standing. The ghosts around Grene let out pained wails and evaporated in the divine light. The glow morphed into a humanoid form, and as the light faded details became visible. Two long horns curved up from the figure's head and a coiled whip was held loosely in one hand. The only proper word for the form she'd taken was voluptuous, the sort of body that would draw worship from mortal men and women even if she were not a god. As if that were not enough, she was clothed in a black leather corset with a few strategically placed black leather straps to keep her decent, and most of it was studded with silver spikes as well. The Lady of Vengeance had once been known for choosing such appearances, and seeing it again made Grene want to grin and laugh and cry all at once.

    “Vay!” The more familiar name, taken by a handful of the gods in the years after the Lord of Destruction and his allies were sealed away, drew the god's attention away from Holm.

    “Grene.” Vay nodded and gave her a little smile. “It's been too long. I've been wanting to help, but the Lady of Justice refused to let me go unless I was called. Stand back, I'll handle this traitor quickly.”

    “Traitor, is it? A rich word, coming from one who abandoned us in our darkest days.” Holm's words help no anger, just the withered remains of old sadness. “You won't find me simple to deal with, Lady of Vengeance.”

    The air around Grene suddenly grew strangely heavy. That sense of immense power radiating from Speaker of the Dead grew only larger. Where before Vay's light had warded off the slightly nauseous sensations wafting off of him, now it felt to Grene like a she was being overwhelmed by the darkness that poured out of him. Something was wrong. No Immortal should have been able to emit such a sense of power, but here he was, doing it anyway.

    “Abomination.” The word came as an angry snarl from Vay. She held her arms up defensively, as if the foulness was affecting her too.

    Speaker of the Dead laughed, a quiet and humorless little exhalation. “Yes. Traitor I reject, but I will accept that label. Death, you see, is a powerful force. I started with animals. Then monsters. Then mortals. It took years of work to grab the soul of a fallen Immortal. It took centuries to complete the next step.” Where Vay had appeared with a glowing golden light, something like its dark reflection burst up around Holm. It was grey and unpleasant, and the light it cast was pale and made everything it touched look dead and decayed. “Do you see now how unbalanced the world is, Lady of Vengeance? I have usurped the power the should never have been within my grasp. I've thought about calling myself the Lord of Death, but that would be glorifying a disgusting abomination. Come, see what horrors your failures have wrought upon the world.” That sickly pale light sprang up around all of the undead creatures in the blink of an eye. Speaker of the Dead floated off the ground heading up into the sky, and the Lady of Vengeance growled and flew after him.

    Grene was left alone, surrounded by the undead horde. They started creeping forward again. When the plants tried to strike them down, the vines and spikes all withered into dust the moment they touched the sickly light. The monsters prowled forward, taking their time, and in less than a minute they were past the plants and forming a solid mob around her. Well, she'd known she was going to die here, so she couldn't be shocked. Grene looked up at the god and the abomination who had taken the power of dead gods. They were fighting there in midair, each clash sending out a thunderous roar of noise, and their two very different lights smashed together to spray out a hail of sparks. She had to place her hopes on Vay to see to it that Holm paid for what he had done. She had done everything she could. Most villagers of Eles had died horribly, but some made it out safely thanks to her, and she had called upon a god to set the situation to rights. She was ready to die now, with honor and peace in her heart.

    Grene let her eyes slide closed and held her arms loose at her sides, dropping away all defenses both physical and magical. The glowing light from the approaching creatures was cold as it came close to her. She imagined a feminine voice, warm and gentle, whispering in her ear: It's alright now. You're going to be okay. Just focus on my voice. Feel nothing, think nothing, just block it all out. It will be over soon. A warmth grew in her stomach. She listened to the voice, pushing away everything else. It was a nice voice. Familiar, but she couldn't place it. The creatures grabbed her, and she knew her body was decaying in their grasp, but she didn't really feel it. Her mind was already elsewhere, listening to the nice voice and waiting for life to fade away into whatever came next. When that darkness finally enveloped her she had a smile on her face, and one last thought on her mind.

    I hope my star shines bright in the night sky.

    Holm felt it when Grene died. The little spot of light in the heaving mass of death was snuffed out like a candle. There had been something strange about it, a flicker that made no sense, but death never did feel quite as expected. He would mourn her in his own way, leaving her corpse and soul untainted. Her death was a sad thing and he did not want to hold on to something that would remind him of it. What was done was done and he did not wish to dwell on it.

    The Lady of Vengeance was not quite so pragmatic. She grew visibly angrier once Grene was dead. Her whip slashed at him with greater ferocity and the invisible assaults of magic peppered him like heavy spring rain. It was all useless. She was a single god, diminished as all remaining gods were by the death of their fellows. Holm did not know why this was the case, but it was clear to him that the Creator had intended them to work together, not to ever fight and slay each other. Dead gods took a portion of their shared power into the grave. The underworld was positively brimming with power waiting to be put to use. Holm's only limitation was how much of it his body could handle at once, but that was more than enough to deal with a single god, it seemed. He had not been sure of it before testing it out now, with the Lady of Vengeance utterly incapable of even scratching him.

    Simply put, it was disgusting and pathetic. He felt like vomiting as he thought of it. The world was so terribly disordered, a chaotic mess that few had eyes to truly see. No Immortal should ever be able to stand higher than a god, but he did so with ease. Mortals had become the destroyers of Immortals, and now he supposed the bastardization of the intended order of the world was almost complete by his ascension to a power higher than gods. All that remained to finish it off was for him to channel this power into aiding the Lord of Destruction in fixing it once and for all. Remaking the world was a fine goal, but putting an end to existence would also be preferable to this awful chaos.

    “Just die already, you monster!”

    The Lady of Vengeance's angry and frustrated scream grated on Holm's ears. It was time to put an end to her, and this foolish mockery of a battle. One moment he was floating there absentmindedly blocking her whip attacks with a small bone dagger, and the next he was right in front of her with his hand on her throat. She never saw it coming, and by the time he had his hand on her it was too late. Black corruption spread along her skin as his fingers squeezed down hard. It would take but a matter of moments to destroy her.

    “Witness me!” Holm turned his gaze up to the sky as he cried out. He could see the little holes the few remaining gods were watching through, ephemeral windows peering out from the pocket dimensions the gods cowered in. He counted only four, but he felt a fifth somewhere in the world also paying attention in a different manner. That accounted for all the gods who had not retired from the world entirely. “Watch what comes of fighting for the side of chaos. See me and know that I am the embodiment all your greatest failures. I am the force that will destroy all that you have built and see it made anew in balance and order that shall never be undone! Hide away and await oblivion, or fight and be destroyed. The choice is yours, but the outcome will not change. Your time has come to an end. ”

    One of the windows blinked out of existence immediately. Another soon follower. After a minute all that remained was a single window and the watcher from elsewhere in the world, and those did not seem to be going anywhere. So be it, Holm thought to himself, three hiders and two fighters. He clamped his hand down with full force, and the rotted mess of the Lady of Vengeance's throat crumbled in his hand. Her corpse plummeted to the ground, already mostly consumed with black corruption, and he could already feel her power slipping into the realm of death. Slaying the remaining two would be no harder.

    Holm did not bother lowering himself to the ground. He turned northward and floated onward, directing some of his undead minions to fan out westward to destroy the military base off that way, but the bulk of his force moved on north. The remaining two gods viewing him turned their attention away now that the show was over. Soon thereafter, a familiar presence floated up from the masses tearing through the woods below.

    “Where to next, boss?” Dunru floated along at his side, apparently unruffled by the intense aura of power coming from Holm. That was one thing he liked about the dead: they did not care for power, for they were beyond such things, they just did as they were told.

    “There is a city to the north. Some smaller towns along the way. They must be eradicated, and I want to stop by and reclaim some old pets. Then we keep on north, finish clearing off this continent, and make our way eastward for the second half of the job.”

    Dunru floated on in silence for a minute, then spoke up again with tentative curiosity. “So the plan is to... kill everyone? All around the world?”

    “Yes.” Holm sighed. “Or at least as many as the Lord of Destruction wants dead before he feels ready to carry out the last part of the plan. If we could find that damned sword then he would do it now, but without it he wants as many threats eliminated as possible.”

    “That's gonna be a lot of corpses.” Dunru chuckled. “Lots of new pals for the army. Too bad most of 'em aren't talkative. Gets boring with only a few others like myself around. Lonely too.”

    “I know.” The Immortal fell silent for a while, musing on whether or not the ghost realized the irony of saying such a thing to him. When he spoke up again he could hear the weariness in his voice. “Soon there will be no more loneliness, at least. That will be nice. I'm tired of this existence.”

    The ghost had nothing to say to that. They floated on without any more words, headed for the next doomed town.

    “Things are not going well for us.”

    Umi just looked up from her tea, not bothering to say anything to the god. The Unseen Lord had taken a human form in order, as he was sure to explain, to take a little pleasure from the novel experience of eating and drinking. It was something he did from time to time when he came to visit, and his explanation for the reason he did it always amused her. He could have gone to sample the greatest cuisine the mortal world had to offer, far better than the tea and soup he'd find in her cozy little shack, but he never did so. It wasn't about the food or drink, it was about companionship. For such a usually slippery and secretive fellow, he was truly terrible at lying to save his pride. Umi was kind enough to let him keep it, in part because she enjoyed the company as well and would tolerate the falsehood that came with it.

    He sighed and squinted at her. “You're so much harder to read with these mortal eyes. Inscrutable even. It's irritating.”

    She cackled at that one and took a bit to regain her composure. “That coming from the Unseen Lord himself! Should've called yourself the Lord of Inscrutability, you secretive old fart. I wasn't thinking anything important anyway. Nothing much to be thought of it except to keep on going until we can't go any more.”

    He nodded slowly, frowning now. “I suppose so. It's... difficult. It has been many years, and seeing one of my last remaining kin slaughtered like that, it just...” The Unseen Lord was quite visible now, and anguish was written clear on his human features. “It hurts.”

    Umi set her cup down and reached out to pat his hand. “I know, Rory.” She used the name he'd given to mortal worshippers because it had always felt more personal, and if ever a moment had called for a personal touch it was this one. “You've worked so hard to keep them alive, so I can only imagine the pain you feel for losing one. Just remember what comes at the end of this if we win. I know it won't make it hurt any less, but it might help you keep focused. We can't afford to lose focus now that things are getting difficult.”

    He took the gentle chiding well, nodding and letting out another heavy sigh. “You're right. I couldn't find a proper savior among the clan warriors, so I must look elsewhere. The one who spotted me is quite interesting though. I wasn't aware any scions of the Lady of Hope's blood remained in the world. He's quite a morose fellow to come from her line. Usually they're more chipper. Think he'll be of any use at the end?”

    “Oh, no, definitely not.” Umi clicked her tongue in disapproval and reached out to refill the Unseen Lord's almost empty cup. “He's not just morose, he's practically rushing toward the grave. The silly man is going to get himself killed doing something bold and brave and pointless, mark my words. That Neko girl though, she's sharp. Might be she'll be useful with some nudges in the right direction. I'll teach her a thing or two to see it done.”

    From there the chatter turned to lighter things, talk of the less worrisome parts of their plans for the days to come. They both knew this would be one of the last times they had to relax before the true fight started. These little skirmishes were only the precursor to the war truly started. They took what little time of comfort and happiness they had left, for once it was all said and done they were both likely to be dead and gone. Such was the price that must be paid to save the world for the mortals, after all, and they were both willing to pay it.

    Howls broke the silence of the night. These were no ordinary wolves, of course. They were massive beasts, larger than bears. Dire wolves had not been seen by mortalkind in many years, and this was perhaps the last pack of them to be found on the eastern continent. They were glorious killing machines, but they hadn't been able to stand against the organization and weaponry of the mortals.

    The Lady of Monsters sat cross-legged at the peak of a small hill, smiling at the pleasant sound of her children crying to the moon. She viewed all the fearsome creatures that came from the First War as her children. The Lord of Destruction was the one always credited with their creation, just because he'd thought up dragons, but most of them were her work. Those that were left in the world had heard her call, and they were gathering to see their mother for the first time in many years. It was a joyous reunion, truly, and they were behaving themselves admirably. Normally they were vicious things, always fighting and trying to see who was strongest, but now that the Lady of Monsters was back they were listening to her commands like good little children. This was what she had missed the most when she was sealed away. Eventually they'd scraped enough of the seal away to be able to peer into the world, but just seeing her precious creations had not been enough, not nearly enough.

    An ogre stomped its way up the hill, holding something hidden in its massive hands. It stopped a short distance away, staring at her with a twisted grin on its face. It was practically vibrating with excitement.

    The Lady of Monsters beamed at it. Such an adorable fellow he was, she couldn't help but return the smile. “What have you got for me, dear?” The ogre dropped its prize next to her, then stood there with. She looked at the bloody mess in the grass for a few seconds before she realized what it was: an elf. A child elf, in fact, perhaps no more than ten years old. He'd been crushed into a ball so it had been quite hard to tell. The closest town was a few hours away on foot, so the ogre had certainly gone out of its way to kill the little pest. The Lady of Monsters laughed and clapped her hands. “Very good! Excellent work, I'm so proud of you. Such a considerate child, bringing it back to show me.”

    The ogre pounded its meaty and bloody fists against its chest and let out a primal scream toward the sky. This was how they were competing now, vying for their mother's affection, and she was not sparing with it. The poor creatures had been without their mother for so long, so the Lady of Monsters couldn't help but dole out praise by the spoonful. The ogre lumbered off, likely to brag about its accomplishment, and she watched him go with a smile still on her face. Her children were truly a delight to watch. She would be happy just staying here until the world ended, but she knew she could not do so. Things needed doing, and her children were going to quite enjoy their part of it.

    Monsters were practically unknown to the modern generations of Gencha outside of stories from the wild lands of the western continent. Soon enough that would change. Where the Lord of Destruction had failed with the form of his vaunted dragons, the Lady of Monsters was not so arrogant as to go alone. She would bring her children along and let them play to their hearts' content, until Gencha was left as nothing but blood and ashes smeared on the pages of history. The thought kept the smile on her face. It had been so long since she'd gotten to lead her children into a battle. It was going to be so much fun.

    Black mist crawled over the grass and left death in its wake. The moon was shining bright on the field, reflecting merrily off of the damp remnants of rain that had stopped falling only a few minutes prior. The uniformity of the tall grass was broken in only one place by a tent, a rough thing made of animal hide strung onto sticks. It was a peaceful little campsite, no fire thanks to the rain, but cozy all the same.

    The sole inhabitant of the tent was asleep. He was a thickly-muscled creature, the one who had been used as a model to make orcs in fact. Breaker of Stones, the mist thought. It crept forward, slipping into the tent and creeping up the legs of the sleeping man. Eyes popped open and silver irises practically shone in the dim tent. Breaker of Stones gasped for air, flailing weakly at the darkness incarnate that was slowly consuming his form. It was no use. Within a minute he laid still, all life drained from his body.

    The Lord of Destruction, in the form of deadly black mist, slipped out of the tent just as quietly as he'd entered. That made three Immortals dead by his work since his dragon form has been destroyed. They were damnably slippery, and just tracking them down was the lion's share of the work. They knew ways to mask their presence that even he could not break, not now with these pathetically weak powers he was left with after the war that ended with most gods dying and taking their power with them. It was truly irritating.

    But one of the Immortals had slipped up. One had stopped masking their presence long enough to let the Lord of Destruction track them down. He was constrained in his speed since he'd taken this mist form, and changing would take longer than he liked, so he was left to float on silently, killing everything he touched. She was off on the other side of the world, but that was not a problem. He had waited hundreds of years for freedom to see this war completed, so a couple days would not mean much. He would reach the Witch of the Water soon enough, and she would die just like the others.
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  10. A History of Iwaku by Tari of Eles

    III - The Age of Mortals

    Most historians choose to label the formal creation of the Ivory Circle as the start of the Age of Mortals. I propose a different take on this notion, as noted in the previous section of this work. I suggest that the death of so many more Immortals, and Jorick's proclamation that he would see to it that his people never subjugated the mortals again, was in fact the death knell of the previous age.

    Once the battle was concluded, the imprisoned mortals of the western continent were aided by the immortals in their early efforts to rebuild and get back to something like normal life. After many years of subjugation, and the methodical destruction of their homes prior to that, they had nowhere to go and were left to make the best of this new chance at a free life. The humble town they put together before the surviving Immortals began to drift away would eventually rise up to become the city of C'box, renowned as the second greatest mortal city, eclipsed only by Gencha.

    Jorick and the Witch of the Water and (according to her own writing but unmentioned in others) the Siren of the Shadows escorted the soldiers from the eastern continent home. The Siren of the Shadows wrote that she retired to life on a mountain somewhere on the eastern continent, but it is unclear where exactly that was and I have found no mention of her life afterward, though my best guesses place her writings about her life as being made at least a hundred years after the end of the war. The Witch of the Water stayed around the mortals for a while, helping here and there with Jorick's plans, but eventually she too disappeared to live a solitary life, though many remained aware of her existence and her name appears infrequently throughout mortal works, particularly as an apparently terrifying source of knowledge and wisdom.

    What became of the other Immortals who survived the war is mostly unclear. From accounts of encounters with the Warden of the Woods, it seems she chose to live in the wild lands of the western continent. Others, such as Breaker of Stones and Eater of Flames, were rarely encountered in the less civilized areas of the eastern continent. One fellow named Walker of the Sands, who also went by Razilin, lived among mortals selling potions meant to enhance certain physical characteristics or increase sexual performance, but which were actually concocted of horse urine, foul-smelling herbs, and dyes; this lasted only until the mortals discovered his lies and ended up hanging him from a tree some twenty years after the war against Speaker of the Dead was concluded. It is hard to even be certain which other Immortals survived the war, much less what they chose to do afterward. This effectively left Jorick as the sole Immortal interacting closely with mortals on a regular basis.

    Gencha was at that time a thriving kingdom, expanding and warring with its neighbors now and then, sometimes making them into vassal states or fully taking them over. Jorick chose it as the “seed of a new era” (his own words) and easily became an advisor to the king. It was an arrangement that met with significant success, leading to a vast expansion of Gencha's power and influence over the course of a decade. This was nothing, however, compared to the successes that came when that king passed away and his daughter ascended to the throne.

    The ascension of Queen Sen was a matter of great controversy at the time. Gencha had a history of male-only succession, but Sen was the only child of the previous king. Many wished to hand the crown to the king's younger brother, but the king had been convinced in his twilight years to publicly declare Sen his heir. That was not quite enough by itself, and a council of the lords of the land was called to determine the fate of the rulership of Gencha. Jorick, as it turned out, had been granted a cozy little lordship a year or so prior, and so he was able to attend the council. By all accounts, he was the driving factor behind Sen being granted the throne. Lady Vivian, one of the few ladies in attendance to represent their house in lieu of a lord, wrote approvingly of it in her memoirs:

    “All the weight of history was behind the king's brother, the old drunkard that he was, and most seemed poised to hand the nation over to him as a matter of course. Jorick, the king's closest confidant, spoke with passion about Gencha's need for a new path into the future. He explained that there were two paths before us: one going against the late king's wishes and leaving Gencha to drag into the dirt under the weight of bloated history, and one following his wishes and leading Gencha to become the greatest nation of the world. I had already been in support of Sen, but had I not been I suppose he would have swayed me. He certainly swayed many in that room, and I think everyone would agree that it was for the best. Gencha is the best it has ever been, and it looks to be improving further by the day.”

    As Lady Vivian noted, Queen Sen's ascension saw the start of what many call the Golden Age of Gencha. The common history says Queen Sen was the architect of this time of vast advancement and wonder, but I suspect Jorick (who retained his position as advisor to the crown) simply allowed her to take all the credit for the sake of appearances. His own writing says nearly that verbatim, but he does allow that she was far from foolish and that the best ideas of the time were joint creations worked out after long nights of discussion and debate between the two of them. I should note for the sake of completeness that there were bawdy rumors at the time that Jorick and Queen Sen were involved in a less than professional manner, but I have found no proof at all of such a thing despite Jorick's autobiographical writings being extraordinarily candid about sexual relationships with mortals (which I shall not bother delving into in this text since it is not relevant to the wider scope of history). Moving on from sordid foolishness, this Golden Age saw the start of forays into magitech, and Jorick's writing about this subject is quite fascinating:

    “The mortals have devised a new way to use magic. Or is it new? It's hard to say. I have in truth never paid much attention to their magic or their equipment, but over the past month things have been catching my eye. They weave magic into some of their weapons, for example. For an Immortal it would be a trivial exercise to simply will a sword to burst into flames; for a mortal it's not quite so simple. They devised a way of making little conduits that passively gather magical energy when inactive, and then when activated pull on the ambient power around them more aggressively to fuel whatever effect they are tied to. Any mortal, even totally lacking in any training in the use of magic, can pick up one of these swords, take a minute to learn how it works, and have a flaming sword on demand. It's quite brilliant, and it's something that we Immortals never bothered to think of since we lack the limitations of mortals. These creations, which have recently been called 'magitech' rather than the more clunky 'magically-enhanced technology', are going to change the world.”

    And so they did. Queen Sen's reign saw the world making its first shifts away from constantly warring neighbors to nations using trade and diplomacy instead. It would take a few generations before that paradigm became the dominant one, but she did a lot to lay the groundwork for it. She was, according to various accounts of the time, a deftly skilled politician who was able to work longtime enemies of Gencha into tentative allies. Her focus on trade, plus the early forays into enhancing ships with magitech, saw the nations of the world connected in ways that had never been seen before. These days we take it for granted that someone in Gencha can send for a shipment of spicy peppers from C'box and have it in their hands in a few days, but none of that would have been possible without these astounding advancements in both technology and diplomacy.

    When Queen Sen passed away, she was hailed as the greatest ruler Gencha had ever seen. Perhaps the biggest disappointment that she gave the people was her insistence that there be no vast and unseemly monument in her honor, though they did convince her to allow statues in her image, which the people took full advantage of. Should you be reading this in Gencha, have you ever wondered what all those faded statues in the center of each plaza are meant to be? These days they are worn down to indistinguishable humanoid figures, but they were created in the years after Queen Sen passed away to honor her memory. And yes, I do mean all of the old statues central to plazas and gathering spaces, all two hundred and fifty-nine of them. Previous statues were moved or demolished to make room, and there is a hefty net of tradition and law in the city keeping them from being replaced. Contemporary commentators remarked that the zealous citizens had made a mockery Queen Sen's wishes to be honored in a reserved and tasteful fashion, and I find myself in agreement.

    Those rulers who followed Queen Sen were far less remarkable. Progress slowed but kept moving for a little over a century, and it seems many of them resented Jorick's presence. He had grown to be seen by many as equal to or greater than the king or queen of Gencha, and it was a common joke to say he'd gotten it wrong because the power behind the throne was supposed to stay hidden in the shadows rather than parading his influence out in the open. One king banished Jorick from Gencha but found that none of his armed forces were willing to attempt to enforce the order; this little feud was reconciled by Jorick publicly declaring his fealty to the king and vowing to remain in his estate out in the country and totally out of politics unless he was called to return. Peculiarly enough, Gencha saw a period of decline under that king, steep enough that the words 'coup' and 'rebellion' entered the common lexicon. That king refused to budge on his half-baked exile of Jorick, and it was not until his son took the throne that the Immortal was asked to return to the city. Fortunes reversed and Gencha prospered once more. It is hard to say whether Jorick purposely worked from the shadows to harm Gencha enough to fall into a period of recession to prove his value to the city, or if the king of the time was just a bumbling fool, but either way it was effective enough to see him installed permanently in the castle to advise future rulers. Jorick's own writings of the time do not give any clear hints as to what occurred and were mostly occupied with his work to improve the land of his estate to turn it into an idyllic vacation home, indicating that he was at least certain he would not be in exile from the city forever.

    Things changed again, and for the better, when Queen Nemo came to power. She was the third woman to ascend to the throne of Gencha, and at sixteen years old she was also the youngest to ever take on the mantle of power. Previously such young heirs to the throne had been made to wait until they were at least eighteen before taking full control of the nation, with a temporary regent appointed to hold the throne until then, but Nemo had been quite insistent that she had no need for such foolishness. To quote her directly, in a statement made to the powerful lords of the land who were trying to convince her to accept a regent: “Why would I let some pompous ass sit on my throne when I can do the job better than any two of you put together?” Apparently they liked her spirit, especially after dealing with listless and lifeless rulers for so many years, and so they reluctantly withdrew their recommendations for regents and swore their fealty to their young new queen.

    Jorick also quickly grew fond of her independence and cutting tongue; in his writings he compared her very favorably to the Witch of the Water. For a couple decades his writing had swerved away from politics and plans for the future, off toward more philosophical pursuits, and I suspect he had grown weary of the endless battle with weak leaders to try to get them to advance his vision for a better world. Queen Nemo taking the throne turned that around almost immediately, and he worked for three years to get her to finally accept him as a trusted advisor. She had apparently thought of him as a “creepy old lecher” (her words, and I will note that given all his writings of sexual conquests with mortals I find myself inclined to agree with that assessment to a large degree) and wanted nothing to do with him, but he eventually worked past that reluctance through persistence and proving his worth as an advisor by predicting outcomes of political maneuvers with startling accuracy.

    Once they were truly working together, Jorick and Queen Nemo made a very effective team. What Queen Sen had begun over a century before, Queen Nemo set out to finish. She aggressively pursued political alliances with other nations, she worked out mutually beneficial trade deals with them, and she even went one step further in pushing other nations to ally with each other and make trade deals and marriage pacts to cement the bond. Of note here is the fact that Queen Nemo herself flat out refused to consider any marriage proposals, despite the enormous benefits such an arrangement could provide. She explained it thusly to one suitor who was at first appalled and enraged but later became one of her fiercest supporters (after she helped to arrange a marriage for him with a powerful and wealthy lady from C'box):

    “And why, exactly, should I shackle myself with the bonds of marriage? I do not need you, or any other man, to help me rule my kingdom. I'm doing a marvelous job of it myself, thank you very much, and you would only get in the way. I've an abundance of family, more than I would like and more than enough to assure a clean succession, so I see no need to subject myself to the woes of childbearing and giving birth. You offer me nothing of worth, and I will not reward you or act like you are offering me some treasured gift. I swear to all the gods that I will hang the next fool who asks me to marry him.”

    This was, as one would expect, a point of contention between Queen Nemo and the various lords of the land, and not just the ones who wanted to marry into royalty. It became a common snide joke that there was no king because the queen preferred sharing her bed with women, and in fact there is plenty of evidence to bolster this claim, but nothing conclusive. Regardless of her preferences, the lords had no leverage to convince her to change her stance on marriage because she was in fact doing a damned fine job without a king by her side. By the time her twentieth year on the throne rolled around, there had not been any armed conflict between nations for five years, and the last time had been a minor scuffle over a petty land dispute. Trade was booming, and the first early airships were revolutionizing travel over land. The military of Gencha had been turned into an armed peacekeeping force that spent most of its time patrolling the roads to ward off bandits and making excursions into the wilds to hunt monsters rather than sitting around waiting for the next war to start. The worst complaints at the time were more about change than about things actually being bad, which is probably a rather good indication of how nicely things were going for Gencha.

    The first public suggestion of a permanent alliance between the nations was supposedly Queen Nemo's idea. I say 'supposedly' because it was clear from Jorick's writing that he had been angling for this sort of arrangement since before she had been born, but the credit for the idea was given to her. Jorick himself became the vocal champion of the idea and an ambassador to other nations to work out the details. It took almost a decade for the plan to come to fruition, and frankly looking back on history it is astounding that it was ever managed at all. So many nations that were pushed into begrudging alliances had hundreds of years of bloody history with each other, and national pride runs high enough in most places that one would think there would be violent opposition to letting any other nation's ruler have a say in their affairs. Despite these obstacles, Queen Nemo's thirtieth anniversary of taking the throne was also the day chosen for the rulers of the mortal nations to gather and sign the official documents to agree to the arrangement. The Ivory Circle was born that day, with Nemo raised to High Queen of the Ivory Circle, and each of the rulers were given a ring made of ivory to commemorate the occasion.

    There were only two major powers in the world at the time that refused to join the Ivory Circle initially. The first, the kingdom of Rolpia, was at the time the second most powerful nation in the world, second only to Gencha. The other was, and still is, hard to define as a united nation: the clans of the north. High Queen Nemo failed to get either of them to agree to join in her lifetime, but her accomplishments were vast indeed regardless. She lived to see the Ivory Circle prosper for its first seventeen years in existence, then passed away peacefully in her sleep. Have you ever wondered who the woman on the face side of Gencha's currency is? That is the lasting memorial to High Queen Nemo, because she learned from her predecessor's mistake and absolutely forbade any construction in her honor. The man who ran the treasury at the time of her passing quickly crafted new coins with her face on them, and so she has remained on them ever since. The back side originally showed a view of the royal castle of Gencha, but it was replaced by an image of the Glass Spire a few years after it was constructed.

    One curious part of the Ivory Circle's agreement was that the standing rulers were to choose the next ruler of their alliance by a vote, and that person would take the throne in Gencha. It effectively dissolved the sovereignty of Gencha, despite the claims (particularly from Rolpian detractors) that it was a naked power grab by Gencha. One might have expected the agreement to limit who exactly could be chosen as the next ruler of the Ivory Circle, but in fact it could be anyone a majority of standing rulers of the other nations wished to place there. They first selected the eldest among them, the king of Gallen, but he only lived for a couple years and so they needed to choose another. This time they selected a young woman, the queen of C'box, and unfortunately they chose rather poorly. She was transparently biased in favor of her home, she funneled wealth and titles that way, and she did everything in her power to reduce the power and good fortunes of other nations, including Gencha which was under her direct rule. The other rulers voted unanimously to remove her four years later, but unfortunately they made another poor selection in a man who did much the same for his home of Contas.

    After this string of poor choices, Jorick apparently grew aggravated and decided to take matters directly into his own hands. He had been working with mortal leaders for nearly two centuries, and one can hardly blame him for getting impatient after seeing them doing their damnedest to ruin what he had worked to create. The High King from Contas lasted only a year before the others voted to depose him, and by the time they gathered to select a new ruler Jorick had already been whispering in their ears for many months. It is unclear what exactly he promised them, or how he manipulated them, and his own writing says nothing more than that he had meetings with the various rulers of the Ivory Circle nations, but most historians agree that the unanimous vote to select Jorick as the new High King was absolute evidence of coercion. I must concur with this conclusion, and I suspect some form of magical manipulation of their minds may have been involved; Jorick had no qualms with writing about underhanded tactics used in other ventures, but altering a mind with magic has always been seen as one of the most vile things that can be done and is akin to forcing sexual advances on an unwilling person, so some level of guilt or shame would explain his lack of writing down how he achieved the unanimous vote in his favor.

    The ascension of High King Jorick was initially met with confusion and hostility by the people of the nations of the Ivory Circle. The leaders of that time were derided as fools as best, and at worst those with a mind for history said they were plunging the world back into the dark times when Immortals ruled mortals. It took roughly two decades for things to simmer down. In that time there were some minor insurrections, an open rebellion in Gencha lead by local noble families (during their losing battle many of those families were destroyed utterly or lost so many scions that they would later peter out on their own, thus why modern day Gencha has so many fewer noble families than other nations), a civil was in Contas that ended with the death of the previous High King, and woefully poor trade due to all this unrest. This period was also marked by Jorick and his associates waging a propaganda war that went largely unnoticed by those fighting against him, likely because the incremental steps taken did not seem like a problem until it was too late. In the public schools that had been established during High Queen Nemo's reign, children of Gencha were taught much of the true history of the Ivory Circle and Jorick's part in it. He was painted as a benevolent savior figure, one who would do far better than the previous rulers of the Ivory Circle because he lacked the bias that caused them to do harmful things, because all mortals were equal in his eyes. His successes were cast as proof of his goodness, and his failures were cast as unfortunate outcomes caused by those mindlessly fighting against him out of misplaced fear. As those children grew into the adults, they were mostly loyal supporters of their High King, and the naysaying of their elders was looked down upon with great condescension.

    As the opposition settled, High King Jorick set about the work of solidifying the alliance of the Ivory Circle and expanding its reach. He enacted new laws to strengthen trade between member nations whilst levying penalties on trade with Rolpia, the northern clans, and the various unaffiliated towns and cities that littered the unclaimed lands between the borders of nations. The unaffiliated settlements cracked quickly, for they could not thrive with trade from the wealthy nations drying up, and they joined with simple pledges of fealty to the Ivory Circle, including payment of taxes and agreement to send military aid should it ever become necessary. The clans had always been self-sufficient and were unmoved by the lack of trade; they simply went back to raiding towns and villages and taking what they wanted, rather than trading for it. Rolpia turned out to be a tough nut to crack, and the key to that was technology moreso than trade rights.

    In his reign as High King, Jorick had been a generous patron of the arts and sciences. There were monthly allotments of gold for many such enterprises, but it was mostly just a matter of him leaving it up to his advisors decide where the gold went. This changed when a gnome named Jared was granted an audience before the High King. He demonstrated a new invention he had been working on: a crystal infused with magitech circuitry that, when powered, shot straight up into the air. Apparently he demonstrated this by sitting on the crystal and almost smashing himself into the very high ceiling of the throne room when he activated it. He suggested its use for moving heavy things quickly, shooting rocks at an angle to act as catapults, attaching such crystals to shoes to allow soldiers to jump on roofs, and finally, the only one of those uses that became widespread, as an improvement to the rather inefficient metal plates used to get airships to hover a few feet off the ground. Jorick saw the great value in this and offered Jared ludicrous amounts of gold and a place in the royal court as the sold magitech advisor. Jared accepted the gold happily but had to be convinced (over the course of months) to work for the High King, and he reportedly secured an absurd amount of benefits to agree to the arrangement, up to and including total immunity from the law. So far as I could find, he only ever used this immunity for two things: to make alcohol in a homemade distillery in his home without ever paying taxes or business fees despite selling it, and to disregard various safety laws to procure monsters and dangerous animals for domestic ownership (the list of creatures owned at the time of his death was as follows: one wyvern, one griffon, one giant spider, three dire wolves, one troll, two bears, four tigers, four crocodiles, one kangaroo, and fourteen extremely venomous snakes).

    The discovery of using crystals as the core component of magitech was by all accounts revolutionary. Jared was tasked with, in simple terms, playing with crystals and finding out what they could do other than just emit a directional force, and he of course found many possibilities. Crystals in modern days are regarded as inherently magical, but in fact that is an association we have grown to have due to seeing them always used in magitech. While they are more difficult to work with than plain metal, due to the risk of shattering them, crystals are able to draw on and direct far more magical energy than other materials. Airships were the most obvious result of their use, but everything from the weapons our soldiers carry to narrow buildings rising up more than three stories to the lanterns around cities that come on automatically at night are all products of crystal-based magitech. While much of these uses have been improved upon in time, most of them were first discovered in Jared's workshop, and none have yet matched his impact on the craft of making magitech. High King Jorick apparently took a deep interest in Jared's work and had a workshop built in the castle, wherein he tinkered with making and altering magitech himself.

    Once the first airships with crystal levitation crystals were produced, they immediately outclassed their metal-based ancestors. In the thirty-first year of his reign, Jorick took a fleet of six of these new airships out for a trip to Rolpia, with the crystals disguised to look like large metal domes. He spoke to the king of Rolpia and declared that this new technology meant that Gencha had no need to trade with Rolpia any longer, which they had maintained since Rolpia was a close neighbor and it was cheaper to send wagons there than to send ships with their large crews to more distant members of the Ivory Circle. This did not sit well with Rolpia, but Jorick refused to budge on the matter. In the following years Rolpian magitech engineers tried to figure out the secrets of the metal domes, and even when they finally saw the truth of the crystals they were still unable to figure out how to make it work. Other members of the Ivory Circle, once they had been granted the knowledge of how to make true airships, also ceased trade with Rolpia in favor of keeping all their wealth inside their alliance.

    It took only five years after Jorick declared a cease of trade between Gencha and Rolpia, almost to the day, for Rolpia to descend into a civil war between two main factions: those who wished to remain independent, and those who wished to join the Ivory Circle. The lack of trade had caused their economy to collapse, there was not enough food to go around, and people were beginning to flee the country in search of better opportunities. High King Jorick dispatched Ivory Circle forces to supply the needy with food and to establish safe areas in which those who were not part of the fighting could get away from it. They were absolutely forbidden to fight unless it was self-defense or they saw civilians being attacked by either side, in which case the attackers were to be eradicated. A journal written by an unknown soldier fighting on the side wishing to join the Ivory Circle explained it in an amusing way:

    “We coordinated the time and place of battles ahead of time with the Ivory peacekeepers and the enemy. All cities and towns and villages were unofficial truce zones because there were always peacekeepers and neither side wanted to earn their ire. It was chaos in those first months before the Ivory Circle intervened, but then life returned almost to normal, the battles got more and more rare without anyone really winning much ground. It was the most civil civil war ever fought.”

    I suspect the slow reduction in battles was due to many defecting to the side of those in favor of joining the Ivory Circle. The conduct of their soldiers was, simply put, brilliant manipulation that worked like a charm. In a time of panic and fear and death and chaos, they stood at once as representatives of their alliance and of peace and prosperity. How could people not come to see the Ivory Circle as the best option? After roughly two years of hostilities, the king of Rolpia formally joined his country into the alliance. His first act thereafter was to abdicate the throne and order the nobility of the land to choose for themselves a new king who would be able to lead them into this new way of life, for he was unable to do so after resisting for so very long. They chose one of the lords who had been a leader of the faction in favor of the Ivory Circle, and Rolpia was quickly brought assimilated into the trade of the alliance. Their recovery over the following decades was marred at times by rebellions of those who refused to accept that Rolpia was part of the alliance now, but even so they managed to get the country back on solid footing, though they never rose back to their former status of being second only to Gencha in influence and economic power.

    After Rolpia was brought into the fold, High King Jorick turned to two different aspirations at once. First, the coffers of the Ivory Circle were turned toward the task of establishing mortal presence in the far reaches of the land. Much of the southern end of the eastern continent was monster-infested wilderness, and on the western continent the only major mark of civilization was the city of C'box. They had over the years grown to be a rather insular people, and so there were some farming villages within a day's travel of the city but very little otherwise so far as mortal settlements were concerned. Military outposts were set up on the frontiers, and hefty sums of gold were offered to those who had interest in pushing back those lines and taming the wilderness. It was a rather successful program and has lasted into modern times; one of the newest such settlements, the town of Eles, is where this text is being written. The second goal was not something that could be solved with gold: bringing the northern clans into the Ivory Circle.

    The clans had been horrid nuisances to their neighbors for many generations, but after a time of relative peace they had gone back to their raiding ways and upset the precarious balance that had been achieved. Even stationing military forces in the border towns was not enough; the clan folk were clever enough to spot the opposition and just slip past them in the night to hit less defended targets farther south. A movement formed around the idea of building a wall to keep them out, but it never quite took off before Jorick intervened with his plans. Rather than trying to play defense, he chose to go on the offense. The Ivory Circle formally declared war on the clans (or rather, in the formal documents, the enemy was labeled the 'Northern Wastes' as a name concocted by Jorick to refer to their so-called nation) late in the fortieth year of High King Jorick's reign. A messenger was sent with this declaration of war, dropped off at the edge of their territory with a flag of peace, but he never returned. However, the message had clearly been received, for when the fleet of airships carrying soldiers and supplies landed in the Northern Wastes they found large bands of warriors already headed south.

    High King Jorick lead the forces of the Ivory Circle into battle, and it was a rather bloody affair. In the end the clan warriors could not stand for long against the superior armaments of their foes, though they did manage to kill many thanks to their sheer ferocity. The army marched northward, dispatching all who dared stand against them, until finally they reached the place in which the clans had gathered to come together to fight the war as a united group. It was extraordinarily rare for the clans, with their long history of feuds and infighting, to join together as a united front. They did so in the face of the threat of the Ivory Circle, and in their gathering place they had kept the bulk of their forces back. Going by most historical accounts, one would assume High King Jorick's decision to challenge the clans to send their best against him for single combat was an act of mercy, to spare them from losing most of their warriors in a fruitless battle, and perhaps a way to assert dominance. Based on various bits of evidence I've found over the years, I propose an alternative reasoning: there were enough clan warriors remaining that victory was far from certain, so Jorick chose to fight the ten champions himself to save his own army and ambitions. Regardless of the reason, the challenge was issued and accepted, and the terms were simple: should Jorick be killed, the Ivory Circle would stay out of the Northern Wastes for one hundred years; should Jorick slay all ten warriors sent against him, the clans would bend the knee and join the Ivory Circle. A soldier present to witness the fight, identified only by the name “Eru” scribbled on the front cover of the journal, wrote an interesting (albeit somewhat lengthy) account of the events:

    “It was damned mental, but nobody really said anything to stop it. The High King was the High King, and he always seemed to know what he was doing. Except for putting away that fancy sword of his I guess, that was dumb, could've killed all of them in one blow with that thing. He borrowed a plain sword from one of the men from Gencha and went to fight, didn't even bother with armor. Bear Clan sent a big bastard, guy with a hammer that looked heavier than a full grown man. He lasted all of a minute before getting a sword in the throat. Crocodile Clan sent some damn fool who used a whip covered in animal fat that he lit on fire. Managed to burn the High King's shirt a bit, probably from fat flying off, but he only got a couple swings in before he lost his head. Wolf Clan and Kangaroo Clan were nothing special, solid men with sword and shield, lasted a fair time each but ended up dead all the same. Rabbit Clan sent a woman with daggers. The lads had a laugh at that, but not me, I saw she looked like she knew what she was doing, and even the High King looked real concerned and wary. She was a tricky one, darted in with a flurry, then danced out and threw smaller blades she had hidden on her person, laughing and making jokes the whole time. She managed to get a couple of those throwing knives into the High King, and a few slices on his arms, but in the end he figured her out and his sword was swinging perfectly to meet her neck when she tried to slip away to his right after another attack. Folks in the army got real concerned after that, sure enough. Hydra Clan sent another man with a shield, but he used a flail instead of a sword; ended up with his guts spilling on the ground after he got reckless. Tiger Clan's woman wasn't impressive, big lady with two swords, only managed a few swings before she lost an arm. Dragon Clan sent out a guy wearing an actual set of dragonscale armor, plus his club might've been a dragon bone. Looked impressive, and he lasted longer than anyone else, but eventually the High King just got tired of playing around and rammed his sword right into his chest, straight through one of the scales. Next was another big man, this time with a big sword, from the Chimera Clan. The High King went on the attack, battered the man's sword out of the way, and stabbed him through the heart. Broke his sword doing it and had to borrow another. Last came another dangerous woman, this one from the Leopard Clan. She just had a big sword, but like the one with the daggers she actually looked like she knew what she was doing. Didn't set the High King on edge like the Rabbit Clan lady, but this one put up a hell of a fight anyway. She was fast, scary fast, couldn't quite keep track of her. I thought the High King was a goner, but he started moving fast too, and he was yelling things I couldn't make out. Pal of mine after it was over said he understood some of it and the High King was sort of cheering the woman on, telling her to keep up with him, that sort of thing. Ended up with the woman taking the sword through her gut, but she went down swinging and took a chunk out of the High King's leg and cut his face. Those weren't the only new wounds he got though, ended up real bloody but still standing, and he was grinning too. Looked like he was having the time of his life. Once he finished the Leopard Clan woman off, he went and got his fancy sword and walked over alone to talk to the clan leaders. They were all kneeling before he said a word. They got honor at least, live by their word and all that, so they didn't make a fuss about joining the Ivory Circle after that.”

    Jorick himself wrote extensively on the clans and his battle to bring them into the Ivory Circle. By his own words, he hadn't had a fight that truly challenged him in centuries, and the fight against the Leopard clan warrior had been an exhilarating and unexpected event. Of the Rabbit Clan warrior who also gave him a real contest, he wrote only the following: “I knew the clan folk were more stuck in the old ways than other mortals, but I never expected one of them to have the blood. It was a surprise, and I regretted the need to kill her, but it had to be done.” I am not sure what 'the blood' is, but other historians have suggested it was a colloquial term for one with the blood of a warrior, based on other mentions in writings of Immortals who refer to oddly skilled mortals throughout the ages as having 'the blood' in some sense. Regardless, Jorick seemed to respect the clans, but that did not stop him from taking advantage of their defeat for the sake of fulfilling his vision of a united mortal world.

    The clan leaders all signed the agreement (most with crude representations of their clan's beast of choice rather than true written words), and the Northern Wastes became a part of the Ivory Circle. The arrangement was cleverly designed to minimize the power of the clans: rather than counting the clan leaders as kings on par with others, they were deemed as roughly equal to powerful lords, so if they wished to have representation for their people whenever a council of rulers was called they would have to select someone to send to speak for all of the clans. The selection process required more than half of the clan leaders to agree on who to send. To date, the Northern Wastes has sent a representative to a grand total of eight council meetings out of over two hundred, and one of those was later discovered to be an illegitimate representative who had only received the approval of five clan leaders. The only proposals they put forth were requests for aid for the Northern Wastes after extremely harsh winters or outbreaks of sickness, and it is worth noting that every single one of those proposals was approved unanimously. Aside from the matter of representation, the clans were brought into the trade network of the Ivory Circle in a far more active way than they had ever previously been involved, including the construction of airship docks in their territory paid for out of Gencha's royal coffers.

    The mortal nations settled to a generally more peaceful existence after the clans were brought reluctantly into the fold, and they remained without war for more than three decades. During that time more attention was paid to the expansion of the far reaches of civilization, particularly on the southern end of the eastern continent; apparently the rulers of the Ivory Circle unanimously agreed that they should aim first to settle all of the eastern continent before focusing on the wilder western continent, and that is exactly how it went. A magitech-outfitted lighthouse was built on the southern tip of the eastern continent twenty-eight years after the clans were brought into the Ivory Circle, signifying the alliance's total control of the land of the continent. It was a mostly symbolic building, since traditional ships rarely ever traveled around the south end of the continent, but it did spark a surge of idealistic and hopeful songs and poems that used the lighthouse as a metaphor for hope itself and mortal ingenuity and so forth. The western continent was not stagnant in this time: C'box funded expansion efforts in this time, spreading mostly to the north during this period. At first they were hampered by three massive beasts (a flightless lizard that looked much like dragon, a wolf that was as tall as three men, and a snake that was said to be hundreds of feed long and hefty enough to knock trees over in passing) that inhabited the jungle they wanted to colonize. They proved to be simple beasts, for enlarged versions of common animal traps were enough to do away with them. The northward spread was much slower than the race to the southern tip of the eastern continent, but it was steady and relentless.

    That period of peace and expansion was brought to a grinding halt by the Northern Uprising. At first it appeared to be something of a civil war, though generally characterized as the clans returning to their normally violent ways, but it grew into something much deadlier. The leaders of the Bear, Kangaroo, and Leopard Clans managed to vanquish the others and secure rule over the clans as a trio. They had decided that the clans had gotten the short end of the stick in joining the Ivory Circle, so they decided to leave it. Rather than doing so via diplomatic channels, they chose a different path: they decided to kill the hated rulers of the other nations and put an end to the Ivory Circle as a whole. They gathered their warriors and marched south, taking the first town by total surprise. In doing so, they also got their hands on an armory that was full of magitech armaments. The clans had been quietly denied the secrets of this technology out of fear of what they might do with such powerful gear, and those fears turned out to be all too warranted. The clans fought their way to the capital city of Contas and demolished the guards and military forces that had been arrayed, taking their equipment as well, and then sacked the city. The king of Contas chose not to flee, against the advice of his advisors, and met the invaders with the intent to surrender the city in exchange for assurances that the people would be harmed no further. He was cut down before he could even say the word “surrender,” and the clan warriors broke into the castle and sacked that too.

    While the king had not fled, many did escape on airships and spread word of the attack. Soldiers were rallied from the neighboring nations to intercept the army from the Northern Wastes. They were unable to truly gather and form a defensive position before the clans were upon them, and they were overrun quite easily. For all their follies of violence, the constant fighting undoubtedly keeps the people of the northern clans more fit and ready for war than comfortable soldiers who mostly guard doors and once in a while have a bandit or two to deal with. The hardened soldiers were those off in the frontier outposts, and the softer sorts left behind were not enough to stop the well-armed clan fighters. Rolpia was the next target of the horde, and it did not fare much better than Contas. Many people were evacuated via airship before the clans arrived at the capital city, and many more had fled on foot. Those that remained to fight (mostly soldiers and guards who decided to defend their homes) were killed within an hour. The city of Rolpia was looted and fires were set, burning down so many buildings that it took nearly a decade for everything to be rebuilt or replaced. With two cities taken down, the trio of clan leaders turned toward Gencha. They likely thought that if they could conquer Gencha, then they were assured to come out the victors of this war. They were probably right.

    Unfortunately, they marched right into an ambush arranged by High King Jorick. When they reached the edge of the city they found Jorick alone, standing with Godslayer in his hands. The clans had taken to calling him the Conquerer, and tales of his might had become legend among them. Just the sight of him was enough to give them pause, but when they rushed in they found a barrier in place preventing their entry. The clan leaders were said to have yelled that his tricks would not save his city and that there would be no duels to save his people this time. Jorick's response was recorded by a scribe who had taken up hiding in a small house at the edge of the city in order to witness the events: “Those without honor are not worthy of a duel. They are worthy only of being culled like the rabid beasts they are.” Jorick rose Godslayer in the air and a beam of light shot forth from it. That was the signal to the airships hiding out of sight in the city to rise up and fire on the invaders. The ships were outfitted with heavy magitech weaponry, and they made short work of the army of clan warriors. They broke and fled, and with most of their number slaughtered in mere moments that seemed a wise course of action. Those who ran were let to live, but the airships were dispatched to round them up, confiscate the magitech gear, and fly them home. High King Jorick paid the clans a visit to turn over the mangled bodies of their fallen warriors and to show them what happened to those who were foolish enough to fight the Ivory Circle. Some trade penalties were put in place, the border towns were greatly reinforced with military garrisons, and it was made officially illegal to sell magitech weapons, armor, or vehicles to anyone from the Northern Wastes. Whether or not those responsive measures were necessary is a matter of debate, but it is a fact that the clans never rose in rebellion again.

    The next six decades passed as a blissful era of peace and prosperity. This is historian talk for “it was boring and nothing extremely interesting happened.” The frontiers of the western continent were expanded, various technological advancements were made, and there were some political scandals (including a queen of Contas being accused of sexual promiscuity with horses). Only those highly interested in the development of economies or historical diplomacy or similar fascinating but dry topics would want to read about them. I have read about it all, because I am in fact the type of person who enjoys those topics, and I can assure you that I am saving you from many words you will not care about by glazing over those decades. Let us move on to a far more tantalizing topic: prophecy.

    Prophecy is a phenomenon unique to mortals. Immortals have written as much, and Jorick did so at great length, and I've seen nothing to contradict the fact that Immortals do no have the gift of prophecy. It's quite rare in mortals as it is, and many have hypothesized that it has something to do with our closer relation to the cycle of life and death. Many philosophers have hypothesized that death is an infinite state, meaning that because death is connected to all living things at all times then a dead consciousness should be able to see into the future and the past with ease. Their explanation for prophecy is that some people are born with a closer connection to death than most, thus they are able to pierce the veil and catch garbled glimpses. It is true that those few regarded as true prophets were people plagued with lifelong maladies that could be seen as the gateway to their connection with death, but naysayers have suggested that they were psychotic or delusional atop their other many problems and so their “prophecy” was nothing but nonsense. I certainly do not know the truth, but I do know that words of prophecy had a significant impact on the history of the world.

    There was a woman named Fico who was said to be the most accurate prophet the world had ever seen. She was born with twisted legs that did not work, and she suffered from various illnesses all throughout her life, but she did live a long time. She wrote many prophecies, and they were taken very seriously by a lot of people. Copies of many of her prophecies were spread around the world, and some of them managed to bring powerful people down low (one more so than others, but we will get to that shortly). I must confess that I own an original copy of one of her books of prophetic scribblings, and it is quite fascinating, though painful to read. Fico was also known for being able to predict the weather with startling accuracy, and she supposedly knew when visitors were coming to have their fortunes told. She did not provide fortune telling services though, and for an interesting reason. Have it in her own words: “Fortune telling is hogwash and bollocks. The sight doesn't come when I want it, and I can't look for anything specific. It's like a storm passing over the land. It can't be directed to land suffering from a drought, it goes where it pleases and we mortals are helpless before it.”

    Fico's most famous prophecy was also her last, and it foretold the end of an age, perhaps of the world itself. She had caretakers in her last years, people who were devout believers in her abilities and wanted to make sure she was comfortable. In her last moments, at the ripe old age of seventy-four, as she struggled to draw breath, she wrote that final prophecy. Believers would say that it was certainly the most true of her works because it was written just as she was passing through the doors of death herself, but naysayers would note that people are never fully lucid when they are dying and that this was more nonsense. Whatever the truth of the matter, one man believed those words, one man who took them to heart and shaped his life around them: High King Jorick.

    Jorick's personal writings take a strange turn after he notes that he has received a copy of the prophecy. He started to write of dark gods and the Gates of Norlathel (and took upon himself the title of 'The Last Gate of Norlathel' and justified it as a “necessary and late reminder of my duty”), and he blamed those dark gods for all the ills of the world. Apparently he disappeared for a few weeks, taking an airship out himself and heading westward, and when he returned he no longer had the sword Godslayer with him. After a while he settled down a bit, but was still regarded as strangely erratic by most people around him. Jorick found the best magitech engineer in the city (a dwarf called Neb, who was regarded as the true successor to Jared by many in the field, and in fact he had been alive during those days and some claim he was the one who actually perfected the technology behind airships) and bought his services for an extended period of time. Where before the few sketches in his writing had been simple diagrams, at this point many very complicated drawings filled pages after pages, all to do with magitech designs; skilled engineers have looked at them and said they're utter nonsense, that they looked like they would reflect energy rather than taking it in to be used for some purpose, and that the job could be done with far simpler setups that lacked the many apparently pointless and useless sections of magitech circuitry. Jorick worked closely with Neb in developing upgrades to magitech weapons, and the product of that work became the new standard of weapon production across the world. The other greatly notable project from those days was the construction of the Glass Spire, the building that would replace the castle of Gencha as the seat of power for the ruler of the Ivory Circle.

    While people had been willing to accept the strangeness of High King Jorick's behavior thus far, he ended up crossing lines. Many lines. Lines that made those with knowledge of history make reference to the Age of Immortals and the way his kind had dominated mortals. He became far more erratic, disappearing many times alone on a personal airship, flying away west over the sea or north over the land, and remaining absent for days or weeks or months at a stretch. When he returned he was obsessed with the null storms that roam the Circle of the Gods (which he said fulfilled one line of the prophecy) as well as the Northern Uprising (which he said fulfilled the line about three great beasts), and he started ordering weapons and armor to be made in rather excessive numbers. Soldiers were sent on mystifying and useless missions to scout distant locations. It was eventually discovered that his trips north were visits to the Northern Wastes, where he held private meetings with clan leaders and for some strange reason one specific family of the Rabbit Clan. That was when people started whispering about the High King being crazy and needing to be removed, but it got far worse than that.

    Taxes were raised to rather excessive levels, all in the name of preparing for war against the dark gods. Soldiers were sent to forcibly extract these taxes from the wealthy who refused to comply. Some who spoke loudly against these measures and called for Jorick's removal as High King disappeared mysteriously, never to be heard from again. Fear gripped the hearts of the mortal people of the world. A resistance formed in the shadows, and one of the leading figures was a young Avian woman named Peregrine, who at the time was a commanding officer in the Gencha military. Messages were sent to the rulers of other nations, calling for them to depose Jorick with a vote. It took over a year for these messages to manifest the desired results. The other rulers met in secret and voted to remove Jorick from his seat as High King. However, when he was presented with the official paperwork declaring this decision, he simply laughed and ignored it. The world looked to be poised for a bloody war, for while few would contest that Jorick's behavior was strange, many still bought into the longstanding propaganda that viewed him as the one true savior of mortals, and so they believed he had good reasons for what he was doing.

    Instead of war, however, the forces of revolution decided to enact a coup. Peregrine lead a raid into the Glass Spire and found Jorick sitting on the Glass Throne, muttering to himself and not seeming to notice the people entering. When he finally snapped out of this strange state, he reportedly did not look surprised to see them. He stared at the armed people and refused to answer questions. He made only one statement aloud to them: “I have done all that I can do. The children must bear the burden.” Jorick refused to budge from the throne, and although he did not actively fight the people they were forced to drag him away and out of the tower. He was banished by order of the council of rulers of the Ivory Circle, placed in a small cottage that was watched over for many decades by a full garrison of soldiers until he began to wither and weaken to the point that he was deemed to no longer be a threat. The Glass Spire was searched, and in the cellars underneath they discovered an awful secret. There were multiple floors of prison cells, and within them were mostly human and elven women, interspersed with a few men. One who was described in Peregrine's report as “the green-haired man” explained the circumstances of their captivity: they had been held for years (starting soon after Jorick caught wind of the prophecy) and forced to breed. None of them knew what had been done with the many children born of this vile program, nor did they know what the purpose was, but all could agree that Jorick had become a very sick man, sick in the mind. Some propose that Immortals all turned mad eventually, such as all those who became tyrants in the Age of Immortals, and that Jorick had simply lasted a long time. Whether it was inevitable or just unfortunate, it was clear that the once-great man had fallen. He has since been most commonly referred to as the Fallen King. However, not all people turned against him, not even with that most disturbing of discoveries under the Spire: over a thousand people ended up leaving Gencha alone, and many others left other cities, saying that they believed the truth of the prophecy and would follow Jorick into exile. Little villages sprouted around the countryside, called the Fallen Villages by many, that remained loyal to Jorick. Apparently there was some communication between the Immortal himself and those adherents in the early years of his exile, but it ceased eventually.

    A new High King was chosen, for the first time in over a century, and the rulers chose the man who had been the king of C'box at the time. His rule was unimpressive but not bad and lasted for twenty-two years. By the time he died, a star had risen in Gencha that could not be denied. Peregrine, who had once been known simply as a skilled tactician, had discovered a great talent for magic. In the span of two decades she had gone from novice to master, and given the longevity of Avians she had many speculating that she could reach the greatest heights of power ever known among mortals if she kept herself on the same course. What's more, she had become a folk hero for her work in unseating Jorick as well as her exploits on the western continent where she helped to lead a new boom in the expansion of frontier settlements. At that time there was something of a rift among the rulers of the council over issues of trade, and they knew they would be unable to settle on one of their own, thus they ended up selecting Peregrine to be their new High Queen.

    High Queen Peregrine's reign has, as of the time of this writing, lasted for seventy-three successful years. Some have called this time a new Golden Age of Gencha, but that would be inaccurate: the prosperity has spread across the whole of the Ivory Circle (with the exception perhaps of the Northern Wastes, for the clan folk remain ever distant and separated), so perhaps it would be best described as the Golden Age of Iwaku, as arrogant as it might seem. The cities have grown greatly, trade has been lively, the years of poor harvests have been offset by laws requiring stockpiling of food for just such occasions, the rapid development of cheaply available magitech tools has improved the lives of many, and there have been no wars under her rule. There have been some issues with packs of monsters attacking settlements of the western continent (such as the herd of minotaur that plagued Eles twenty years back), but High Queen Peregrine has often come personally with soldiers to drive them away and clear out dens and nests deep in the wilderness to make them stay away. It is hard to say what will be viewed as her greatest achievements and worst follies, but thus far there are many parallels in her reign to those of Queen Sen and High Queen Nemo (including Nemo's refusal to marry, although in the modern era with new rulers of the Ivory Circle selected by vote rather than by inheritance it is not a problem at all). It is simply too soon to tell what will become of High Queen Peregrine, and the Fallen King showed us that a good start does not mean a good end. However, there is plenty of reason for hope, for mortals have never been more free of Immortal influence than they are now, and even without their guiding hand we have found harmony and happiness.

    We can only hope that this trend continues and keep on walking forward, for while looking back at history is important to know what came before, what matters most is what the future holds for us all.
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  11. Chapter 6 - Germination

    Crystal ran through the streets, panting and sweating profusely, trying to avoid being noticed by the roving bands of angry people. The sun was directly overhead, adding to the heat of exertion and making hiding rather difficult. Neb had been just behind him last he looked, but now the dwarf was nowhere to be seen. The others had gotten caught up in the fray and there was no telling where they were. The city was in disarray, brought from orderly rebuilding right back into riots and fighting in the streets in the span of a few hours. Something horrifically unnatural was happening here, that much was certain, and Crystal knew he was partly to blame. The only question was whether that bastard Gwazi was the architect of it all or just another pawn.

    It had all started with Gwazi's proposition: take to the streets in support of Lord Nue Maldov becoming the new ruler of Gencha and the Ivory Circle, and in return he would send one of his associates to heal Kimberlyn. There was also some talk about payment and an offer of a life of comfortable employment in High King Nue's service, but the healing was all Crystal cared about. It all seemed like a waste of effort as far as he was concerned, because only a vote from the council of rulers of the Ivory Circle could choose the new leader, but he was fine with doing some pointless nonsense if it meant Kimberlyn would be healed from whatever was afflicting her. They set out shortly after dawn, geared up in all their new weapons and such to make themselves obvious as the renowned heroes of the city, and they had a couple of Lord Maldov's banners and some stacks of papers to hand out. Crystal hadn't bothered to read them past seeing that they were meant to tell people how awful Lady Peregrine's inner circle was.

    The papers hadn't made sense until they encountered another group out walking the streets. This one carried Lady Peregrine's banner and was calling out support for Kitti to ascend to the throne. That was damned surprising; normally Crystal would have happily supported seeing someone who wasn't a pompous rich asshole taking power, but he'd already sold his allegiance to such a man for a price that was honestly far higher than it was worth, so until the important part of the price was paid there was no choice but to keep on supporting the rich guy. The first group of Kitti supporters went by with grudging indifference, pointedly ignoring their opposition. The second and third exchanged some words that started playfully but quickly turned sour.

    Things had already changed by the time they spotted the fourth group of Kitti supporters. They'd seen a few other Nue groups wandering around, and colored arm bands had been circulated among them, two shades of blue with a silver fang to match the banner. The bands started appearing on average citizens as well, quiet proclamations of support. The other side caught up quickly: the loud groups of Kitti supporters and many citizens got their hands on purple feathers and displayed them prominently. As the symbols of support grew more common, things got less amicable between those on opposite sides. The fourth group of Kitti supporters hurled insults and threats at both Crystal's group and the people walking around wearing arm bands. The hostility was infectious, and even the others marching with Crystal got caught up in it, cursing those who wore purple feathers as if it was only natural to hate them.

    It didn't take long for the violence to start. Fights broke out between regular folks wearing differing symbols only a few hours after the marches of support began. People with arm bands began to join up with Crystal's group, many carrying crude weapons. The Kitti groups swelled in size in the same way. By the time they saw the first dead man lying in the street, apparently strangled to death with his own arm band, Crystal knew something was terribly wrong in the city. His friends were all caught up in the madness, seeing nothing wrong with it no matter how he pointed out the insanity of it all, except for Neb who quietly agreed but said he should keep the objections quiet. Daz and Kara and Halaster and the others were all taken by whatever foul spell, for it had to be magic of some kind, had fallen over the city. It didn't take them long to start attacking anyone they saw wearing feathers, and no matter what Crystal said there was no stopping them.

    As noon approached, elements of the military had been dispatched into the city. Even that was all wrong though; they didn't stop any of the fighting, they simply formed armored barricades to keep people out of the central area of the city around the fallen Glass Spire. Whatever madness had taken hold, it was clearly affecting whoever was currently in charge of the place, and the soldiers themselves too. Crystal saw some of them walk away from their posts and join one side or the other, and none of their fellows bothered to stop them. It was like a horrible nightmare had come to life, and that was before the pitched battles started. The group he and Neb were still vaguely associated with, trailing behind and watching on in horror, spotted a large group of Kitti supporters a long ways down a road. They were spotted in turn. Crystal had hoped that they would avoid each other, but that hope was in vain. They marched directly toward each other, weapons at the ready.

    That was when Crystal and Neb decided to abandon the groups and find somewhere safe to ride out the chaos that had taken over the city. They tossed their arm bands and made their way back toward the mansion they'd been staying in, but it was far easier said than done. Other large groups had confronted each other, and some streets were choked with battles. Smaller groups of people wandering around didn't let them just pass by, and apparently being neutral was not an option; they had to profess their loyalty to Kitti twice, and Nue three times, taking and donning arm bands or feathers before they were allowed to pass by, only to discard them as soon as they could. Everyone they met seemed to be in something of a stupor, almost like sleepwalkers, but they were all disturbingly well-focused on the civil war budding in Gencha rather than being aimless. Most people were probably hiding indoors, but everyone spotted outside was in that strange trance of violence.

    After what felt like an hour working through the city, Crystal finally spotted his destination. There seemed to be nobody else around, so he hurried down the street and inside, hopefully without being seen. There was no telling what the mobs would do if they spotted someone trying to flee from the fighting, and he didn't want to find out. He hoped Neb was alright, but there was nothing he could do now but hope the dwarf showed up. The downstairs areas of the house were empty, so Crystal hurried up to Kimberlyn's room. There was only one person inside, but not at all who he expected.

    Neos stood by the empty bed, clutching a crumpled piece of paper in one hand. It had been slipped into his pocket at some point, earlier in the day before the fighting had erupted in the streets. He had been quietly helping to foment the rage of the populace by enchanting the arm bands, but then he had found the odd note and couldn't help following up on it. The violence that took the people of the city was not his doing, for his enchantments on the bands would likely lead to only some yelling and maybe a few fist fights, but he was certain he knew who was expanding dramatically on his work: the same person who sent the note. Nue had objected to his leaving and tried to foist Snowball and Necropolis on him again, an entirely unsubtle attempt to have him watched, but he'd managed to leave without an escort regardless.

    As he stared at the empty bed, which should have contained an incapacitated Dracari girl who was brimming with unusual energy, Neos did not notice the door opening. However, the sound of many bows being drawn in unison caught his attention. By the time he turned to look at the source of the sound he was already shielded by an invisible barrier; upon seeing that he was faced with an assortment of summoned weapons, rather than an inexplicably silent squad of archers, he added a little more power to the shield. There was a Kitsune standing just outside the door, a male with a strange marking of a bird on his face, and he was obviously the source of the bows. It would be a simple matter to annihilate the fool, but for the moment Neos wanted to retain a low profile, so instead he spoke with a dry and bored tone. “Can I help you with something, or are you going to kill me without a word?”

    The Kitsune looked rather wary, which was understandable, but there was an odd glimmer of hope in his eyes. “What are you doing here? Are you the healer? Where's Kimberlyn?”

    Neos nodded immediately. He'd been handed an easy ruse, and he wasn't about to waste the opportunity. “I'm typically not called a healer, but I was sent to handle your friend, yes. However, she was gone by the time I arrived. I have been here for only a few minutes. I cannot sense her presence anywhere in the building. Do you know where she would have gone? Mobile or not, she still requires attention for her condition.”

    The summoned bows slowly let the tension off their arrows, but they did not disappear entirely; Neos mentally approved of the caution, but his face remained carefully still. The Kitsune sighed and shook his head. “I don't know. If she was in a normal state of mind I expect she would have gone looking for us, but she was acting strangely before she passed out, and if she's still being affected by.. whatever the fuck was affecting her, then I have no idea. Either way though, she's in danger, there's all sorts of fighting going on out there.”

    Neos sighed and nodded. “You are correct. We should find her so I can—“

    “Wait.” The Kitsune's eyes narrowed and the bows drew back their arrows once more. “I recognize you. I saw you the other night. You killed two people, used them to hurt the dragon.”

    “Yes.” Neos put his hands behind his back, interlacing the fingers, as if he was wholly unconcerned with this new development. In truth, he was simply considering whether to kill this idiot or just leave him incapacitated. “I did say I was not generally known as a healer. What you saw me do was draw energy out of two people for the sake of helping to kill the dragon. A small sacrifice well worth the gain, if you ask me. I was sent here to do a more delicate job on your friend, to remove the malign powers affecting her, but to leave her otherwise intact. I doubt anyone else in the city both has the skills and the willingness to help her, so either shoot your silly toys at me and doom your friend or get out of my way so I can go find her.”

    The indecision on the man's face was quite amusing. Neos could read him like a book: the Kitsune thought he was a monster who couldn't be let near the Dracari girl, but he also believed the bullshit about Neos being the only one who could help, and he so desperately wanted to get the girl some help. Was he in love with her, perhaps? That would explain the willingness to consider allowing a monster to walk away unharmed for the sake of the girl's life. That or the Kitsune was simply rather less moral than the average citizen of Gencha. Either way, Neos let him go on and on with the pained thinking, all the while quietly forming a spell that would reduce the idiot to ash if he made the wrong choice.

    After a couple of minutes which no doubt felt tense to the Kitsune, the bows slowly faded out of existence and he stepped back out of the doorway. Neos chuckled to himself and let the killing spell fade away, though he kept the barrier up just in case. He headed for the door and walked past the Kitsune without intending to say a thing, but the man held a hand in his way and spoke up. “If you harm her, I will kill you. Fair warning.”

    Neos snorted a derisive laugh. “An ant threatens a giant. Cute, but I'm a busy man.” He tapped a single finger on the Kitsune's chest and the man crumpled immediately. As tempting as it was to kill the insolent wretch, leaving him alive had suddenly become the more fun option. The man would wake in perhaps fifteen minutes with a splitting headache, but would otherwise be fine. There were few things finer than slaying self-righteous fools who did not understand the laws of the world, that power was the only maker of right and wrong, and he was sure the Kitsune would come after him once the news got around that he'd killed the Dracari girl.

    As he left the future would-be vengeful hero to his forced nap, Neos read the note again with an annoyed frown. I've got a tasty treat for your experiments, and she'll be a problem if left alive. Just follow your nose and look for the dragon girl. Be sure to gobble her all up, and do put the power to good use this time. The Lord of Destruction is rather displeased with you, so consider this your chance for redemption. It was signed with a wavering symbol that seemed to shift into different shapes constantly, and looking at it for too long was painful on the eyes and mind. Neos recognized the signature of the Lady of Chaos easily enough. Learning the signs of the gods was a core piece of education for a member of the Cult of Destruction, after all.

    Neos stepped out of the front door of the large home and started casting out his senses to find the Dracari girl. Finding her on the move was going to be harder than finding the pool of ambient energy she'd left behind from laying in a bed for an extended time, especially with the Lady of Chaos working her particular brand of magic over the city, but he would have to do it. Helping to attack the Lord of Destruction had been necessary for the sake of appearances, but it would only be forgiven with time and obedience. Obedience today meant slaying a Dracari girl with strange dragon-like powers, so there was nothing to do but hunt her down and kill her. Neos headed out toward the heart of the city, following the ever-so-faint trail of dragon magic in the air.

    Kimberlyn walked through the city on bare feet, focused intently on the sense of wrongness that radiated through the city. Not the general wrongness that laid over the city like a thick fog, a fog of malice and chaos that gripped the hearts of the people and turned them toward senseless fighting. No, she was focused on the source of it all. She wasn't sure how she could feel it, how she could sense it at all, but it was much the same as when the dragon attacked the city. Then it had been easy to find the source of the sense of evil in the city, and even to view it from afar, like finding her way through the woods by heading toward the light of a bonfire. This time it was more subtle, like trying to find the source of sounds echoing through those same woods. There was also something else, a distraction, like a fly buzzing around her head, that was complicating matters; it felt like it was following her, but she couldn't be sure.

    Whatever the source of this strange feeling was, Kimberlyn had been woken by it and knew she had to find it and destroy it. She wasn't clear on how long she'd been asleep, but that didn't matter now. All that mattered was hunting down the source and killing it. Some people had tried to stop her a few times, angry people, but they fled from her when she shot a little fire at them. Well, not a little. She'd almost killed someone one of those times. She still wasn't used to how strong she was now. Before the dragon attack she was only able to make a little bit of fire, nothing like the huge sprays of flame she could now easily conjure. Kimberlyn knew she should probably be worried about what these changes meant, but she felt strangely at peace, like she had found her purpose in life. Killing things was not usually a noble purpose, but killing things that could turn the city into a battlefield? That was something she could be content with.

    The annoying little distraction she'd been sensing for the last half hour was finally making its approach. Kimberlyn stopped walking in the middle of the street, tall buildings rising on both sides, and waited for it to come. Soon enough, a green dragon flew into view, coming from up in the dark clouds that filled the sky, spiraling down until it finally landed in the street in front of her. It was the same dragon that had fought the big dark one, and it was definitely not in good shape. Many of its scales were blackened and one of its wings was bent at a strange angle that made it move in what seemed to be an unnatural way. Something inside Kimberlyn urged her to kill the beast, and her hands rose of their own volition in the same position as they had the other night against the giant dragon. Her scales started glowing too, and she could feel power building up inside her.


    The dragon's voice snapped out suddenly, and if it had been under her own control then Kimberlyn would have been surprised out of whatever she was doing. Instead she flinched, but her hands remained steady. As the fire formed and burst forth, the dragon's form shimmered and shifted for a moment. Where the dragon had been, the street suddenly became far less crowded. The pillar of fire that shot from Kimberlyn's hands passed harmlessly into the air for a couple seconds before cutting off abruptly. She blinked in confusion, then looked down at the street to see a man walking toward her. He had vivid green hair, the same color as the dragon's scales, and he looked like he'd been in a severe fight and lost. He walked with a limp, one arm hung uselessly at his side, and he was covered in scratches and burn marks. The clothing he wore, a loose brown robe with short sleeves, was also ripped and burnt.

    “So this form doesn't drive you to kill? Good.” The green-haired man stopped a dozen feet away, staring at Kimberlyn like he'd seen a ghost. No, not at Kimberlyn, she realized after a few moments. His eyes were pointed in her direction, but they weren't focused on her. Whatever gave him that haunted look was something else on his mind.

    “Uh, yeah, I guess that's good?” She lowered her hands and scratched idly at a patch of scales as the glow subsided. “Are you a dragon? I didn't know dragons could change into humans.”

    The green-haired man blinked and his eyes suddenly focused on her, piercing and amused. “Yes, it's a handy trick. Very complicated, but well worth the effort to learn. My name is Gryal, former associate and partner of Lady Peregrine.” That haunted look returned to his eyes, and Kimberlyn understood the source now. He shook it after a moment and remained silent, looking at her expectantly.

    “Oh, right. I'm Kimberlyn, I'm um, a bandit I guess? Sort of? It's complicated.” She looked around, searching with eyes and mind for something to say, but it was only when she looked down at her feet and remembered she had no shoes that she thought of what needed to be asked. “Do you know what's happening to me? I'm...” There were a lot of words that could fill the gap, but instead of picking one she just kept her eyes on the ground and waited, trying to ignore that inner push to continue seeking the source of evil in the city.

    Gryal sighed, and it trailed off into a pained grunt as he clasped a hand to his side. “Yes, in fact I believe I do, to some degree. I'd always wondered what happened to the children. I suspected something like this, but...” Kimberlyn looked up in confusion as he waved a hand vaguely through the air. “I suppose I should start at the beginning rather than in the middle. Many years ago, the previous ruler of this city, Jorick, started preparing against the trouble you're seeing today: the return of malevolent gods that were once sealed away. Most thought he was following a false prophecy, but it seems he was right. Some of what he did was... morally questionable. One of those things was capturing dragons, including myself, transforming them into humans, and forcing them to breed with mortals. I am not sure what more was done to them, but they were likely intended as weapons against the gods and their servants, the most dreaded of which were dragons. To be useful the effects would need to be hereditary, so as to be sure the work was not wasted by the passage of time, and he must have built some sort of triggering mechanism into their system to activate those powers when the time came. I suppose given your age you must be the child of one of the initial results of that experiment, and it seems to have been successful.”

    “Oh.” Kimberlyn stared at the green-haired man, trying to wrap her head around it all. She was.. some kind of weapon? Made to fight evil gods? She wanted to say it was all bullshit, but she couldn't deny that it felt like something had been awakened in her. The giant dragon had apparently been an evil god, and whatever was making the city turn into an orgy of violence could certainly be another one. It all just kind of made sense. She didn't like the idea of being born to be a weapon, but then who really had any say over the circumstances of their birth? It was true that her mother had also been a Dracari, and there had never been any mention of grandparents on her mother's side. In fact, now that she thought about it, the only extended family she had was all on her father's fully elven side. Everything just fit together perfectly and left her with only a single question. “So are you my.. grandfather or something?”

    “No.” Gryal looked rather amused at the thought. “You've got red scales. There were a couple red dragons in captivity as well. I'm not sure what became of them after we were freed.”

    “Then why are you here? Why tell me all of this?” Kimberlyn gestured at his various wounds. “You should be recovering from all that, not giving me history lessons.”

    He sighed and nodded. “I should indeed be recovering, but I felt you moving in a dangerous direction and decided to intervene. You were made to be a weapon, yes, but you are nowhere near strong enough to deal with the being you seem to be hunting. Not even I would stand a chance at my full strength. I feel something of a kinship for you, for the circumstances of your creation rather than the dragon-blood in you, and I would like to help you avoid dying senselessly. I may also be able to teach you to control your powers, but I make no guarantees.”

    There was something strange about his eyes as he made the offer. Kimberlyn stared at him, trying to figure it out. Need? Desperation? He wanted very badly for her to say yes, but.. it seemed like it was more for his own benefit than for hers. It didn't take it long for her to connect it with that haunted look he'd had, which she assumed came from losing Lady Peregrine. Maybe he was feeling lost and needed some kind of purpose. She was inclined to decline, because she didn't like the idea of being some dragon's emotional crutch, but learning something about how her newfound powers worked would be nice. Pulling away from that need to hunt down the evil in the city was going to be impossible though; just the thought of walking away from it made her feel violently ill. But then again, he was probably right, whatever was able to affect the whole city like this would probably kill her in an instant.

    “Ah.” Gryal limped a couple steps forward, holding out a hand. “I can see the conflict on your face. I have seen the same before on more... primal breeds of dragons. Reds among them, as a matter of fact. They struggle against their instincts, but it can be done.” He took another step forward. “I can show you, in fact. It will be, ah, somewhat invasive. I must establish a connection with your mind, but I will show you how to block any thoughts you wish not to share.”

    Kimberlyn stared at him in silence for a little while. It wasn't that she was opposed to the idea, she just felt like a normal person would be. She couldn't think of anything that she particularly cared to hide, nothing more than various embarrassments that anyone might have. This dragon had apparently been held as a breeding slave, and that was far worse than anything she'd experienced. In fact, sharing thoughts with a dragon sounded more fascinating than anything else. Kimberlyn nodded, stepped forward, and took Gryal's hand.

    She immediately felt like she was dumped deep in the ocean, cold pressure on all sides, unable to draw a breath. Flashes of memories that were not her own raced through her mind. She saw little bits and pieces of Lady Peregrine, and with them came Gryal's thoughts and feelings. He loved her, but not in the way that she thought of love, not so much in the burning passionate romantic sense. It was like they were partners who would do anything for each other, and without her he felt like he was missing a part of himself.

    My apologies.” Gryal's voice spoke in her head. Kimberlyn realized she was seeing nothing with her eyes, and she was unsure if they were closed or something about this strange link had affected her eyes negatively, but she was quite certain that he hadn't needed to move his lips to speak the words. “You surprised me, I hadn't finished blocking out my own thoughts. One moment.” The flashes of memories slowed and finally stopped after a few seconds. “There. Now I will send you a specific thought, one that will explain how to shield your own mind. I do not mind them overly much, but they are distracting. I will tell you when you've succeeded.

    The thought that sprang to life in her mind was odd. It wasn't anything to do with physical reality, just abstract concepts that linked together in a way that somehow made sense. Kimberlyn tried to recreate it in her own thoughts. It was like stuffing those thoughts into a bag and then tying it shut. It took a few attempts, with Gryal giving more detailed thoughts to explain whatever parts she wasn't quite doing right, but eventually he approved of her work. The next step seemed obvious, even though he hadn't told her anything about it: she let the sack open up just enough to slip a specific thought out: “Is this how I can respond to you?”

    Yes.” Gryal sounded surprised, which was confusing for a moment since his previous words had been monotone, but it seemed easy enough to add inflection to the thoughts. “You're catching on quickly. Perhaps your blood is good for more than just destroying things. Until you get a better grip on this mental connection you'll be unable to control both it and your body; I am taking you to an empty building near where we were standing, just to get out of sight of the rioting citizens. Before we get to fixing that, let's see if I can teach you to control those pesky instincts.

    The lack of control over her body was not worrisome at all. Kimberlyn had seen into Gryal's heart for a few scant seconds, and that had been enough to see what kind of person he was, never mind the fact that dragons might not actually count as people. His arrangement with Lady Peregrine had taught him that mortals were worthy of respect, and not just enemies or food as many dragons seemed to think. She was not sure how long it would take to learn all of these things, but she felt safe enough in his care to not be bothered by something as trivial as time. Kimberlyn put her mind fully on learning what Gryal had to teach, leaving all concerns for the world outside of her mind in his capable hands.

    Jacob laid draped across a couch, watching the chaos unfold from the comfort of his home as he idly ran his fingers through Kitti's hair. This particular room was one of the few in his large home near the center of the city that was actually fit for visitors to see, and it just so happened to have a lovely view of plumes of smoke rising in the air and a bloody battle underway on the Ivory Promenade. His guest for the afternoon festivities was kneeling on the floor beside the couch with her eyes closed and shuddering a little whenever he moved his hand; it was the result of a little trick of his mind manipulating powers making her feel a hint of carnal pleasure whenever her touched her. Kitti was fighting his powers, but she was far from skilled in the art of defending her mind, so it was like an unarmed child trying to fight an armed and armored soldier. Jacob could break her to his will any time he wanted, but the slow struggle was so much fun.

    “Kitti darling, are you ready to tell me why you came to see me?” She froze, and he could see the embarrassment on her face. Jacob knew why she was there: he had planted the thought in her mind that she needed to see him today, as soon as possible. He'd been mildly impressed by how long she'd lasted before finding her way to his doorstep. She of course did not know this and thought it was her own idea, and given all the heady emotions swirling around in her head there were some very obvious conclusions to be drawn. Jacob chuckled at her silence and turned his eyes back to the window. “Fine, fine, no need to say a thing. I'm a kind and welcoming host. Just do whatever feels natural and I'll follow your lead.” He gave her an indulgent smile and used his magic to add a torrent of lewd thoughts to her mind, all with an underlying urge to join him on the couch.

    Kitti let out a shaky breath. She rose up on her knees, moving forward as if to do as mentally bidden, but she held herself in check and instead just scooted a couple inches closer. That was rather amusing; she was proving more resilient than Jacob had expected, and those sorts were always the most fun to break. She cleared her throat, started to say something, then shook her head and evidently went in a different direction than whatever she'd initially intended. “I was wondering if, uh, if you'd seen Rhea. There was some fighting in the streets, and I wanted to tell her to send out some people to stop it.”

    That pulled another laugh from Jacob. She'd been here for a couple hours now, remaining mostly silent and slowly being pulled further and further into his manipulative trap. Clearly she hadn't mustered the willpower to look fully away from him and out the window, else she would have seen that things had devolved far beyond a little fighting. The soldiers were out already, but intentionally made useless with orders to do nothing but block off certain streets and wait until further notice, just more fodder to expand the angry mobs as the chaos consumed their minds. Jacob patted Kitti's head, then ran a single finger down the side of her face, savoring the way she shivered at the touch. “Don't you worry about that. Rhea is off with Titana and a couple old friends, keeping an eye on the city. All you need pay attention to is what's right in front of you.”

    Kitti fell silent again, just staring blankly forward. Jacob enjoyed seeing the mix of fear and desire in her eyes. He was quite pleased with this last assignment from the Lady of Chaos before she started her own plot to destabilize the city. Kitti was turning out to be the perfect target for his machinations, with resistance and compliance melding together in an elegantly beautiful flavor. He'd had many victims before, but none like her. It was a shame that he had only one night to play with her before she had to die, but at least it would make a grand finale before the Lord of Destruction won and ended this world for good. Jacob sighed and resumed petting Kitti's head, humming happily to himself as he planned out the fun to come later in the evening.

    Pahn'kaks adjusted another rope, cinching the knot tighter before stepping back to survey her handiwork. Rhea hung from a tree, bound up in an intricate pattern of rope that had her pulled back with her feet almost touching her head. Her arms were clamped together behind her with a heavy metal contraption, etched with runes embedded with glowing crystals to contain her magic, and the rope dangling from the tree branch was tied onto that device. Her shoulders and upper back had to be in torturous levels of pain, but her eyes showed nothing but pure loathing and desire to kill. It was hard to look for pain in the rest of her face thanks to the wad of cloth stuffed in her mouth and held in place with a rope, but Pahn'kaks was sure even without it there was nothing to see. The bound woman was the strong and silent type who would give nothing away, even in the midst of being disemboweled. That was fine; she didn't need to see the agony to know it was there. She patted Rhea's face twice, then pushed it hard to set the woman spinning on her rope.

    “Impressive. You'd put any of Gencha's sailors to shame with that rope work.” Titana stepped up beside Pahn'kaks, watching the Hand of Justice of the city spin helplessly. She had a smile on her face, a sharp little expression that made clear she was enjoying the torment but wished to see far worse done to their captive before the end.

    “Of course I would. You should feel it firsthand though, it's far more fun than just looking at it.” Pahn'kaks gave her a teasing wink and then laughed when she recoiled in disgust. Titana was so very easy to toy with, and it was so very hard to resist an easy target. “Or don't have any fun in the final days of this world, mortal. Your loss.”

    A quiet sigh from behind halted the angry retort before Titana could get even a single word out. “I let you have your fun with the stoic one, Siren of the Shadows, but I will not tolerate bickering between my subordinates.”

    Pahn'kaks rolled her eye and mouthed a pithy curse before turning round to find the source of the voice, a rather average looking man with tormented eyes. “Yes, Lady of Chaos, it shall be as you command.” She bowed, resisting the urge to make a joke about how she should be called the Lord of Chaos while in a man's body. Despite her name, the god in front of her had always been a creature of order and firm discipline. The name had come from her ability to sow chaos amongst the enemy ranks, but she did it in an ironically methodical fashion. In days long past, when Pahn'kaks had been just a social pariah for her sexual proclivities rather than a true enemy of the Immortals loyal to the Lady of Justice, the Lady of Chaos had almost won the First War with her devious abilities. If not for the Lady of Mercy choosing to sacrifice herself to become a weapon to end the fight, the Lord of Destruction's forces would have been able to continue to kill them one by one thanks to the division in the ranks caused by the Lady of Chaos. It was just a damned shame the god known for such an intriguing set of skills was not nearly so fun in person. At times Pahn'kaks was tempted to use the old and now forbidden name the god once had, Lady of Order, just to get under her skin.

    The Lady of Chaos started rambling on about plots and plans and so on, but Pahn'kaks only paid enough attention to be able to nod where appropriate. It was obvious Titana was hanging on to every word like the pathetic lapdog she was. At first Pahn'kaks had been ecstatic about the sealed gods being released, and she had celebrated in her own way that also managed to help the plans along. However, the more time passed, the more restless she became. The mortals never would have understood, so she kept it to herself. The Immortals like herself who worked to free the Lord of Destruction and his allies had done so in the hopes that they could regain something of what was lost, to go back to something like how life used to be before the First War. Now Pahn'kaks was realizing that had been rather naive, and she was already getting tired of being treated like a soldier.

    Something broke through her haze of discontent. It took her a moment to think back on what had been said, to pick out the odd bit. A lot of people unaffected by the Lady of Chaos' power were heading for the airship dock, but Titana and Jacob had already planted something to take care of that. Kitti was more or less dealt with, and she envied Jacob the enjoyable task. The Lady of Vengeance was dead and Speaker of the Dead was dealing with the western continent by himself. The Lord of Destruction was off hunting Immortals. The Lady of Monsters was... Ah, yes, that was it. The Lady of Chaos was just getting around to talking about something else, but the stupid point of the plan had to be addressed.

    “Why are we having the Lady of Monsters bother with Gencha? They'll be practically defenseless come nightfall. Wouldn't it be better to have her take down some of the other cities?” Pahn'kaks felt the question was reasonable enough. The others apparently felt differently. Titana glared daggers at her, and the heat of zealotry in her eyes gave the message of how dare you question a god??? very clearly. These mortals were so damned spineless when it came to the gods. It was amusing, but it was also sickeningly pathetic.

    The Lady of Chaos herself simply narrowed her eyes. “This is what the Lord of Destruction commanded, so this is what we will do. Do you presume to know better than him what should be done, Siren of the Shadows?”

    Pahn'kaks sighed. “No, Lady of Chaos. I apologize. I am too simple to see the grand scope of the Lord of Destruction's plans. It won't happen again.” There wasn't a hint of sarcasm in her tone, even though she wanted to tear her hair out and scream that of course she knew better than him what to do, as evidenced by this foolish plan that anyone not blinded by zealotry could see was a waste of time. The Lady of Chaos accepted her words at face value, and Titana's smug smile indicated that the mortal thought she'd been put in her place. Resisting another sigh was rather difficult.

    The Lady of Chaos went back to laying out plans, and Pahn'kaks went back to half ignoring it all. Her life had been so fun for many decades, ever since she decided to stop bothering trying to be a good person and just enjoy things while she could. Sure, that included harming mortals, but so what? There were hundreds of thousands of them, it's not like a few dozen here and there would do much real damage. Dedicating herself to the Lord of Destruction just felt like the right thing to do after she turned away from the foolishness of following the Lady of Justice, a god who ignored her followers. At least those sealed away would actually respond when called upon, unlike those who were supposedly the good guys in the First War. Pahn'kaks supposed that was what had pushed her to the naive hope for times long gone to return. Having gods actually respond to prayers, even if they were unable to actually act upon them, had felt like returning to a warm and welcoming home after an age spent traveling the harsh wilderness.

    It had all been just fine, up until the point of those gods actually breaking free from their prison. Since then it had become apparent that those hopes meant nothing to the gods, and Speaker of the Dead was the only other Immortal left following them at the time, but he had his own reasons for wanting to help the Lord of Destruction succeed and she hadn't bothered trying to reach out to him to discuss the problems. The returned gods were very different from when they had first been sealed away, and there were only three of them where there had been a dozen. They were cagey about explaining what happened to the others, but Pahn'kaks suspected something foul had been done. Perhaps the others had been consumed by the other three in order to strengthen their own powers, or perhaps something about the prison had made them waste away and die. Whatever had happened, it had clearly also affected the three surviving gods. They had become more obsessive, more demanding, and more cruel as well. The Lady of Chaos had once been fully opposed to any sort of torture, yet now she approved of what was done to Kitti and Rhea.

    But there was unfortunately nothing to be done about it now. She'd made her bed, and now she had to lay in it. Pahn'kaks knew there would be no tolerance for defectors, as evidenced by Breaker of Stone being so mercilessly killed by Lord of Destruction without even a chance to repent, and she had no illusions about being able to survive the wrath of the gods any better than him. She would simply have to toe the line as much as possible and ride this wave to the end of the world and hope for the best. Perhaps the Lord of Destruction would indeed be able to remake the world into something better, but she doubted it. At this point she just hoped she would be able to have some more fun before she died, or perhaps find something to do that made it all feel worth it. Just one last act to make her not regret what she had done with her life. That would be enough for her to die in peace. She doubted she would get such an opportunity while remaining under the Lady of Chaos' thumb, but such was life. She would be far from the first Immortal to die full of sadness and regret, after all.

    The inside of the witch's hut was far more cozy than Ozzie would have expected. It was full of tables and shelves littered with containers of strange liquids, and he was pretty sure he'd seen a heart and a finger sitting on the odd pillar off in a corner, but even so it felt like a welcoming home rather than the den of a monster. He was still rather shaken by seeing Fury killed last night, but the witch had called for him and he couldn't let the others see any further weakness in him if he wanted to ever have more than a wary truce with them. While Kaga had been inside with the witch all morning, apparently being taught some useful tricks with magic, the clans had followed up on some of Fury's last words and demanded to hear his explanation of what had truly happened years ago before he'd been exiled. Most of them took his word and Fury's together as enough, and a large number of the rest had relented when Elle Joyner stepped in and said she believed him too, but still about a quarter of the clan folk seemed to want him dead regardless, Grumpy and his adherents most of all.

    A plain brown cup, apparently made of baked clay, was set down on the table in front of Ozzie. “Drink.” Umi's word was a command rather than an invitation. She was in the guise of an old crone once more, and she made no effort to hide her amusement at his obvious discomfort with her presence. Ozzie took the presented opportunity grab the cup and look at its contents rather than at the witch, but he almost immediately regretted it. Whatever was in the cup looked like stagnant swamp water, complete with a layer of green scum on top and little dark things moving around in murky brown liquid underneath it.

    “I would rather n—“ Ozzie was already setting the cup down when he felt himself freeze in place, unable to move anything but his eyes. He immediately recognized the familiar predicament, though he'd only ever experienced it from the other side before. He tried to glare at the witch, but it was hard to manage with his face frozen mid-speech.

    Umi gave him a self-satisfied little smile. “You understand, I see. Yes, I can do it without words. I can also force the concoction down your throat if you refuse to drink it yourself. You have no reason to fear it. If I wanted to kill you, you would already be dead. Now, drink.”

    Ozzie was released from the magic binding him, and he sat back and breathed deeply and slowly rather than gasping for air. He shot a glare at the witch before cautiously sniffing at the drink, and... nothing. He caught a whiff of sea water, but that was a constant here given the close proximity of the sea itself. Umi continued to wait and watch, amusement still evident on her face. Ozzie muttered a curse under his breath and took a quick mouthful of the strange liquid, bracing for a horrible taste. He almost spit it out, but out of surprise rather than because it tasted as bad as it looked. It was like the witch had captured the smell of the earth after the first rain of the season and somehow translated it into taste, earthy and strong but not at all unpleasant. He took another mouthful, this time holding it in his mouth for a bit rather than gulping it down immediately.

    Umi chuckled and shook her head. “See? Nothing to be scared of. I don't kill all my guests you know, just the rude ones or the ones who have something I need. Currently you are neither of those, though you've come close to the former.” She settled back comfortably in her chair, folding her hands in her lap. “Now, I called you in here to tell you of your lineage, and perhaps a bit about how to be less of a menace with your abilities. Perhaps now you can stop watching me like I'm some sort of dangerous animal, yes?”

    Ozzie blinked and looked away, taking another sip of the drink to hide his embarrassment. He made an effort to try to cast away his doubts and fears about the witch, but it was damned hard to do after seeing her casually rip the heart out of a person. It seemed like she was waiting for some kind of response and wouldn't continue until she got one. He truly did want to know about where his curse came from, and how to better control it, so he supposed he had no choice. He sat back in his chair, rather than remaining perched on the edge, and gave the witch a vague grunt and a nod. That seemed to be good enough for her, and she started in on the tale of his lineage immediately.

    “Your line started when a god, the Lady of Hope, fell in love with an Immortal. Back then many of the gods lived among us in similar forms, and a few of them grew very attached to certain individuals. Only the Lady of Hope decided that she was willing to give up her godhood so as to be with her beloved, and of course to be able to bear his children. There are stories of children born from the union of a god and another being, but none of them are true, for gods were not made to procreate and could not alter themselves to be capable of it... unless of course they altered themselves to such a fundamental level that they were no longer a god, as the Lady of Hope did. It was quite a scandal at the time.” Umi waved a hand as if brushing that away as a small concern, but Ozzie got the feeling that 'scandal' was an understatement. “They lived together and had children. The first generation of them were Immortals, quite gifted in the use of magic. The second—”

    “Hold on.” Ozzie cut her off, holding up one hand. “What about the Immortal she fell in love with? What was so special about him? Isn't he important to this tale as well?”

    Umi stared at him for a long moment in silence, and then a crooked smile spread across her wrinkled face. “I hadn't been intending to go into such detail, but since you ask, yes, he was special. He was one of the best among us. There were many hundreds of Immortals in those days, and divisions formed in time. Not so quickly as with mortals, but in just the same way our differences naturally pushed us toward forming groups that each had their own goals and ideals and so forth. The man who won the Lady of Hope's heart was the only one whose presence ever managed to truly unify us. It was more than simple charisma and persuasion. He had such an earnest zeal for life that even the more cynical Immortals, myself included, couldn't help but following his lead and working together to improve our city. He was always leading projects and setting goals for us all, and we followed him gladly even after the First War ended... until the man we all knew and loved died a tragic death.” Umi paused there, eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance rather than on Ozzie's face, but it lasted for only a couple seconds before she cleared her throat and continued. “Later on some rallied around Godslayer, but that was purely an attraction to power. Jorick tried to unify us against Godslayer once he'd turned into a tyrant, and he tried again later, but he was a pale and paltry imitation at best.”

    Ozzie wasn't sure what all she was talking about, as the only thing familiar to him in that whole explanation had been Jorick's name, but he remained silent. It was clear that this Immortal's death was a painful subject for Umi, and he figured he didn't really need all the intricate details to understand his past. He could always go looking for history books after this whole prophecy mess was dealt with, after all.

    “So, as I was saying, the second generation were also Immortals. Some of them eventually mated with mortals, thus your lineage was started. Blood of god, blood of Immortal, blood of mortal. This strange mixture allows you to tap into the very power of the gods, the power of creation itself, to affect mortals and Immortals around you. It's nothing like my magic, which requires great discipline and control to wield properly. For you, it's all in the language. You simply say a word and something happens.” Umi held up one finger. “Burn.” A flame burst to life from her fingertip. “Halt.” The flame froze in place. “Release.” The flame moved normally once more. “Die.” This time the flame disappeared entirely. Umi lowered her hand and looked at him with a faint smile. “You've tested that last one, haven't you?”

    “Yes.” Ozzie's voice was tight, and his hands were gripped hard enough around the cup that he was surprised it hadn't cracked. He could remember that incident like it was yesterday. It had been only a few weeks after his exile began. A man wearing ragged and filthy clothes had sprung out of the bushes on the side of the road with a knife in hand, demanding all his valuables. Ozzie hadn't been willing to give up his possessions, and he had tried to talk the man into leaving, but the threats had no effect since he hadn't been visibly armed. 'Die' had been the first word his panicked mind conjured when the man rushed him, and the man had done exactly that, falling to the ground and clutching his chest and twitching for only a little while before death took him fully. “It was unfortunate, but the man had it coming for trying to rob me.”

    Umi nodded. “I've done away with more than a few would-be bandits in my days. It's nothing worth feeling guilty about, though you seem like the type who can't let go of guilt once it gets is claws in you. Anyway,” the witch flicked a finger and a glowing blue symbol that looked something like a child's drawing of a pine tree with a line slashed through the middle appeared in the air between them, “this is the true form of the words you speak to tap into that power. The gods had their own language to begin with, an through the years it slowly morphed and changed into the form we now speak. That first language is almost nothing like the modern language, but some words remain very similar to words in the tongue of the gods. Those are the words that trigger your ability to tap into the powers of creation, but there are some rather stringent limitations. The word 'air' is very close to the original word, but it won't do anything to anyone. Do you know why?”

    The witch had taken on a tone that Ozzie felt would have been fitting in a classroom, no nonsense and demanding active attention, and she had his. It took him only a moment to figure out what she was getting at. “It's not a command. All of the words I can use to do things act as commands.”

    “Precisely. Here.” Umi reached out to the side, reaching for something. There was nothing there, but then all of the sudden there was. An old, leather bound book appeared in her hand. She laid it on the table in front of him, very gently, as if it might fall apart if treated too roughly. For all Ozzie knew, it might do exactly that; the book looked to be many times older than himself, centuries old perhaps. There were letters on the front cover, now just indentations in the leather with a few small specks of what must have once been silver coloration: Word of God: The Language of Creation. Underneath, harder to make out due to the smaller size, was what appeared to be a name.

    Ozzie tapped the small letters and looked up to Umi. “Asmodeus? Who was he, another Immortal?”

    “No. He was one of your ancestors, in fact, and he had the power as well. He came to talk to me a bit over three hundred years ago, seeking my help.” She chuckled and pointed at the book. “That was the result. He had a firm grip on the use of his power, but he wanted to understand it better so he researched the language, with my help, of course. You'll notice he put special emphasis on the use of commands in the language of the gods, and he includes what sort of deeper meanings they evoked in the original language. It was intended as a secret guide for his descendants, but I'm not sure how well that worked out, just as I am unsure how his bloodline made it from Gencha to the northern clans. I think you'll find this entry particularly useful.” Umi gestured at the book and it flopped open to a page in the back half, then a glowing green rectangle appeared around the thing she apparently wanted him to pay attention to. Ozzie read it aloud, for her benefit so she knew he actually read it.

    “Survive.” He shuddered as he felt the familiar sense of the power racing through him, but nothing apparently happened to Umi so he kept on reading. “The modern notion of 'survival' as standing fast against things that would harm or kill a person is a perversion of the original word, survit, which was a commanding word. It was used by the gods to make their creations resilient against the tampering of others, evoking meanings of protection and immutability. It is thought that the use of this word of command is what made dragons so formidable, for they became nigh immune to the powers of the gods themselves.” Ozzie's eyes were open wide by the time he finished, staring at the page and reading that section over again for a second time, then a third. Finally, he looked up to the witch and tried to choke back on the hope suddenly welling up inside him, just in case it turned out to be something other than he thought. “Does.. does this make it so my power won't affect people?”

    “Until you release them from your power, yes. That word is not affected, it seems.” The cup that had held the earthy drink floated up off the table, over to Umi, and she inspected it apparently to be sure he had in fact finished it all. She gave a satisfied nod, then waved the cup away to make it float gently over to a wash basin near the door. “You can keep the book. I suggest you also look for the word 'satiate' in there, and soon. You'll be flying over the Crown of the Gods on the way to Mother Mountain, and that word will deal with the null storms that would otherwise turn your airships into inefficient traditional ships.”

    “Thank you, I'll- wait.” Ozzie looked up from the book again, frowning at her. “Then the null storms are living creatures? I thought they were just some kind of strange magical weather.”

    “They're alive, in a sense. Alive enough for that to work, at least. Don't worry about the details.” Umi's smile made him think that he should in fact be very worried about the details, but she didn't give him time to ask. “Now go, you've got perhaps ten minutes to get back to your ship. I wouldn't put it past that Grumpy fellow to leave you stranded here, and they're all going to die if they don't have you with them. Off you go, enjoy the book.”

    Something pressed into Ozzie's back, forcing him to stand as he tried and failed to form coherent words to ask questions. There was so much he wanted to ask, too much in fact, but the invisible force shoved him relentlessly toward the door. He noticed that this time she hadn't even needed to make a hand gesture to make the magic happen, and by the time he'd been shoved out through the cloth hanging in the doorway realized what it was: she'd been making sure he wouldn't get freaked out by the magic by letting him see she was doing it. It was horribly patronizing, and he wanted to yell at her for it, but when he turned around to push the cloth aside he found that there was only solid blackness behind it now. The witch was blocking him out entirely, probably to intentionally prevent him from asking his many questions. What did she mean about the clan folk dying if they didn't have him? How the hell were the null storms alive enough for his power to affect them? Why was she sending them off to some mountain on the western continent? As he turned away, muttering choice curses under his breath, he thought of another question: why had she been so insistent about him drinking the strange concoction? So many questions, and no answers to be had.

    Ozzie wasted only a little bit of time being angry about the witch before hurrying toward the ships, which he could see were well on their way toward preparing to take off. Now that he had a way to protect people from his power, he thought maybe he had a chance to win over some more of the clan folks. He would have to start with Grumpy, then get him to order the others to not plug their ears when he was near, which they'd started to do in hopes it would protect them. Once he had all the clan members protected he could actually be useful in a fight, and that would do a lot to gain respect from them. Hopefully that would be enough to keep them from all turning on him and killing him when this prophecy business was all dealt with. It wasn't a very cheerful thought, but it gave more hope than Ozzie had felt in a long while, so he held to it tightly and tried not to let all his fears and worries get in the way of optimism for once in his life.

    Raven flew in wide circles over the forest, keeping watch as the Eles refugees rested in a clearing below. They hadn't seen any of the undead monstrosities since they passed the military garrison hours ago, but nobody was willing to take the risk of stopping without being vigilant, and even with Raven on watch this would likely turn into another short rest thanks to fear driving the villagers onward. The same had happened the last two times he tried to get them to rest. Their own physical exhaustion seemed unimportant to them, they just wanted to get as far away from Eles as they could before they could not manage to walk any longer. It was a very strange sentiment that he could not understand, but none of his logical arguments for the benefits of long rests did anything to change their minds. Instead he used bits of magic here and there to heal wounds and give stragglers boosts of energy to keep up. If they were not all going to rest, then he wanted to at least make sure nobody was left behind.

    A thin plume of smoke rose in the southeast. A couple hours ago it had still been quite thick, and Raven had been able to see flames still rising from the military outpost, but now it seemed to be dying down. There had been a bit of rain an hour ago, so he supposed that was the cause for the reduced burning. It seemed that the undead things that had followed the villagers had in fact only been sent to destroy the outpost. They must have headed off to the north afterward to rejoin the main body of the army, for Raven could see no sign of them anywhere within miles, neither with his eyes nor the more arcane senses he possessed. They were more or less safe now, but he was still uneasy. He could feel something far off to the south, something that was eerily familiar to the feeling of the monsters, but he was certain their leader was still heading unrelentingly north.

    As much as Raven wanted the mortals to rest to avoid injury, he could not deny that he wanted to get this done with as soon as possible. At their current pace he guessed that they would make it to Mother Mountain by midnight, and the secret way to the top would have them up to the shrine almost instantly. Whatever was going on in the south, and whatever the undead army was aiming to do, there was only one thing that could resolve this whole conflict. It was the purpose for which Raven had been created, and he would see it fulfilled no matter what. Before a new day dawned, it would be done and the battle against the dark gods would truly begin.

    Speaker of the Dead watched with mild interest as his minions clambered inside and on top of the undead dragons. It hadn't been his original intent when he revived the monsters to destroy the city of C'box, but it was going to be useful indeed for getting to the eastern continent quickly. He'd originally planned to commandeer airships, but alas, the dragons were wild things and destroyed them all in their efforts to kill all the mortals in the city. There were no more screams coming from the city, only the sounds of burning wood and the occasional collapsing building.

    They'd put up a decent fight for about an hour, but alas they had only been against the ground forces that Holm had sent against them as a way to keep the dead things occupied rather than milling around aimlessly. The losses to the defenders of the city didn't matter, for the ranks of the dead had overall gained many thousands after the people of C'box were raised into his service. He'd left his forces to batter at the walls of the city while he went west, to an old and familiar place known to the mortals as the Field of Bones. That was where his dragons, enslaved to his will thanks to a trick the Lord of Destruction had taught him, had all been killed by Jorick wielding Godslayer many years ago. Holm had expected the blade to be brought against him directly, and he had been prepared for it, but he hadn't accounted for it being used to defend the damned mortals that the other side had brought along. A lot of his strength had been used to lay a trap for the wielder of Godslayer, and it went entirely to waste since his plan had depended on the dragons coming from behind and forcing the other Immortals to split their attention.

    The reminder of the old failure was an irritation, but from the corpse of old failure rose the key to modern success. Undead dragons were, as it so happened, just as terrifyingly powerful as living ones. C'box would have struggled to handle just a few, much less the dozens that swarmed the city. It had taken about an hour for the dragons to do their work and then for the horde to be sent in to hunt down the hiders, and now they were almost ready to continue on north. Had he been in the mindset for humor, Holm supposed he might have found the sight of hundreds of undead things climbing aboard the mostly skeletal dragons to be funny. Instead he was just slightly impatient, wanting to be on his way once more. The dragons would make travel faster, but even being undead they could not carry so much weight indefinitely and so flight across the sea was impossible. They would have to continue on northward, to the top of the continent, and cross over the sea in a similar way as the army of mortals and Immortals crossed over hundreds of years ago to try to kill him.

    Very few remained now to remember all the horrors of the past, but Speaker of the Dead remembered. He had started this bloody work with a heavy heart, but now he was beginning to enjoy it. Finally, after so many years in hiding, toiling away under the Lord of Destruction's guidance to tap into forbidden powers, he was getting his revenge on the mortals for everything they had done. It mattered not that these particular mortals had done nothing in specific to wrong him. Their very existence was an insult that could not be tolerated, for their continued existence had come at the cost of lives that Holm cared for far more than his own. Every mortal that died felt like a new act of revenge against those who had ruined everything, and revenge felt damned good.

    When his minions were finally ready to go, Speaker of the Dead sat atop the head of the lead zombie dragon as it lifted off the ground with the aid of its own magic and started northward. The villages further north weren't worth any special attention and would be eradicated in passing by force of dragonfire. The next large gathering of mortals would be the clans of the north, on the eastern continent. It would take some time to get there, certainly, but he could be patient. As lovely as revenge was, there was no need to rush it. What was another day after waiting centuries?

    Holm let his eyes slip shut as the great beasts flew onward, trying to focus on plans for the future, but as always the losses of the past haunted him soon after his eyes were closed. Smiles and laughter turned to screams and blood. The same scenes replayed themselves over and over and over again in his head. He felt tears slipping down his cheeks, but he did not bother trying to wipe them away. Balance was important, yes, but only to prevent horrors such as those in his memories from happening again. This world needed to be destroyed and remade with true balance, but not for the sake of balance itself. But even if the Lord of Destruction could not actually remake the world in true balance, it still needed to be ended now that Holm had the power to see it done. He wanted to see the world destroyed for a very personal reason, and the ideology of balance was simply his external justification. It was quite simple in Holm's mind: the world that had taken his happiness away did not deserve to exist any longer, so he would burn it all to the ground with his own hands if necessary.

    Darkness. There was only darkness. Nothing to touch, see, taste, smell, or hear. It was warm though. Warm like a comforting blanket of nothingness wrapped all around. It was peaceful. After such a long life of sadness and regrets and loneliness, nothingness was an improvement. Time passed, no telling how long, only that the existence of discrete individual thoughts following one after another meant that time was indeed passing. It was strange that consciousness persisted, but not entirely unwelcome.

    A sudden somethingness bursting into the nothingness was, however, very unwelcome. A light appeared. A glow in the distance twinkled like a star in the night sky. It grew steadily larger and took on a blue color as it did so. There was no way to tell if it was actually expanding or if it was simply drawing closer. It was bright, blindingly so, but it was cold. It burned away the warmth and replaced it with pain. Where before there had been nothing, now there were limbs and a torso and a head that was full of throbbing pain. The darkness melted away into trees and tall grass and a few flowers and a bright blue sky overhead. A bird chirped in the distance and was answered from farther away.

    “Noooooo.” The word was exhaled in a pained moan, extended until it trailed off into pitiful silence. Grene found it a struggle to move her body, every movement bringing new aches with it, but she managed to curl up on her side and hold her head. She'd thought she was free, dead and free of the pains of living. She remembered dying, those bony hands and claws and teeth tearing at her until she died. This didn't make any sense at all.

    “Good morning, sunshine.”

    The voice came from behind her, a voice out of many memories from long ago and one more recent, musical and sweet. Grene turned over, groaning at the effort and pain, and found a woman wearing a shimmering white gown sitting comfortably on the trunk of a fallen tree as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She looked almost human, with pale white skin and short brown hair, but not quite right: her dark eyes were like bottomless pools, full of knowledge and power and certainty that no mere human could hope to possess. Grene croaked out some weak noises before clearing her throat and naming the woman in a weary whisper. “Lady of Justice.”

    “Oh, come now dear, no need to be so formal. Call me Diana.” Diana leaned forward, looking for all the world like a queen on her throne despite the surroundings. “We've got work to do, so let me just finish healing you up and—“

    “Why?” The harshly spoken word cut the god off and made her arch a brow. Grene didn't care that she was being rude. “Why did you bring me back? How? I was ready to go. I wanted to go. Please...” She trailed off, unsure of what she wanted to ask for. Freedom? Death? Was there any difference between the two? Grene closed her eyes, trying and failing to resist the tears that suddenly blurred her vision, but soon enough she was curled up in a little ball and sobbing, ignoring the pain that wracked her body in favor of expressing the pain that ran far deeper than flesh and bone.

    It went on for some time before a warm hand stroked her hair. Diana had knelt beside her, and as the sobs subsided she pulled Grene's head up into her lap, murmuring soft and comforting sounds as one would do to calm a child. She should have felt patronized and insulted, but it was soothing. It had been so long since anyone had comforted her, or been close to her at all in a more than merely physical way. She wasn't sure how long it took her to finally calm down, but she ended up laying there facing Diana's stomach and gripping her dress in one hand. The pains in her body had gone away, healed as she cried. The god said nothing, letting her take her time. When Grene finally spoke it was a reiteration of the important question, this time flat and emotionless: “Why?”

    Diana sighed, still gently stroking the Immortal's hair. “Because I need your help. Vay is dead, and I can't stop Speaker of the Dead on my own. Death is an impenetrable barrier to we gods, but Lord of Destruction did a terrible and clever thing in finding a way for an Immortal to reach through it. Only another Immortal will be able to match the feat and stop Speaker of the Dead.”

    That sounded positively horrifying. Grene did not respond for a while, but then another question resurfaced. “Then how am I here? I died.”

    “No.” Diana's hand left the Immortal's head and moved to her chin, pulling her face up to look her in the eyes. “In the most technical sense, perhaps, yes, you could say you died because your body ceased functioning. In the way that matters, the way of the spirit, you did not. I held the essence of your being safe and sound until your body was mostly repaired.”

    “Why me?” Grene hated the petulant tone she heard in her voice, but she couldn't help it. “There are others. You should have let me go.”

    “There are no others to choose from, unfortunately. I am sorry that I must ask you to continue on, but it is necessary.” Diana fell silent, but a questioning stare from Grene drew an explanation from her. “There are fewer Immortals remaining than you might hope. Many disappeared from my sight many years ago, and I'm not sure if they died or if they have simply hidden themselves too thoroughly to be found again, much like my fellow gods in fact, aside from Rory. The others...” She sighed and shook her head. “The Lord of Destruction has killed the others I might have trusted. I know of only four who remain. Speaker of the Dead and Siren of the Shadows are his creatures. Witch of the Water is busy with her plans and Rory's, and quite frankly I don't think she can be trusted with this sort of power. She already happily dances across the lines of respect and decency for her own purposes, and that without any specific motivation to sway toward a darker path. You, Grene, are the only one left that I can trust to wield the weighty responsibility and power of death without being corrupted by it. Just this one last task, to see justice done, and then I will help you find the peace you seek.”

    It was phrased kindly, and almost as a request, but Grene knew it for what it was: a demand. The Lady of Justice had always been like this, silk and flowers and pleasantness over a core of merciless steel. Grene could see that unbending resolve in her eyes. There would be no refusing this request, and should she try to escape she would only find herself back in this same position, waking from fleeting peace once more. That warmth in her stomach that she'd felt before she died was already back again, and she did not need to ask to know that it was the same magic that had kept her spirit from passing through the veil. She wanted to cry again. It wasn't fair. She'd held on for so long, refused to give in to despair as so many of her fellows had done, but she had finally been granted relief without giving up. And then it was snatched away from her. Grene wasn't sure she could bear to go through that again.

    “Fine.” The word was almost whispered, choked with emotion. Grene looked away from Diana's face, trying and this time succeeding to hold back tears.

    “Good.” Diana patted her on the shoulder. “I watched carefully and saw how he reached the power of the dead, so I should be able to teach you rather quickly, perhaps only a couple days to get it right. I'm going to show you what I saw. It will be very painful to impart these detailed memories upon you, and we may have to repeat the process a few times until you have it memorized well enough to do as he did. Are you ready?” The god placed a hand on the side of her head, waiting for a response.

    Grene almost wanted to laugh. Physical pain? What did that matter any more? She was far beyond caring about such things. Instead of saying any of this, she just nodded. It had to be done, so she would bear whatever it took. White-hot agony filled her a moment later as visions invaded her thoughts, burning through her mind like a brand searing the flesh.

    Screams filled the once-quite forest clearing and did not stop but for mere moments the screamer took to breathe in new air. Seconds passed into minutes into hours, and the sounds only quieted as the screamer's throat became too damaged to make more sound. Insects and animals and monsters alike fled from the screams, but more importantly the uneasy waves of power that began to ripple through the forest long after the noise faded. It was far too deep into the wilderness of the southern end of the western continent for any living mortal or Immortal to be around to feel it. The dead things, however, were quite unsettled.
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  12. Chapter 7 - Darkness In Full Bloom

    The dragon-stink was strong in the air, now. Neos felt it like a fog passing over his flesh, damp and clinging and unpleasant. There were two different magical scents now, two separate sources of dragon magic, and that was moderately annoying. He was fairly sure the second had to be the green dragon from the other night, the one that had apparently been helping Peregrine. He'd always wondered how she became so powerful so quickly, for she did not feel at all like a natural prodigy who had finally tapped into her gifts, and having a dragon as a personal tutor and assistant certainly made sense. Now the damned lizard was getting in his way, which also made sense coming from Peregrine's pet. Even in death the pompous cunt kept interfering in his plans. It would have been funny if it weren't so damned frustrating.

    There was a thick pool of draconic energy in the middle of one street, and for a moment Neos thought perhaps they were nearby, but it didn't feel quite fresh enough. Gauging time from arcane waste products was challenging at best, but he felt confident that they'd spent at least a few minutes there speaking, ending no more than half an hour ago. It took him a minute of walking the edges of that cloud of energy to find where the two of them had gone. Someone had attempted to hide their trail, probably the green one, but they'd done an imperfect job. Neos followed this new path carefully, expecting another long trek through the city.

    He was thus surprised when the trail led him to a building only perhaps a hundred feet from where he'd first picked up the masked trail. It was tough to decide if staying so close was clever or damned foolish if the dragon had been worried about being tracked, as the attempt at stealth seemed to indicate. A lesser mage would have been unable to find the subtle trail so close to the larger pool of energy, but then a dragon should have no reason to fear any mage who was so pitifully useless. Neos walked around the building, going very carefully and quietly through the small alleyways between the neighboring homes, all the while feeling for further trails of dragon-scent. Nothing at all jumped out at him, so he made a second pass focusing on the building itself, looking for anything that felt like a trap or an alarm. Nothing again. He was starting to think that the attempt at stealth had been a reflex rather than an intentional thing, for nobody who intended to hide would do this poor a job of accounting for pursuers.

    There was nothing for it but to head inside and see what the dragon and dragon-girl were up to, so Neos did exactly that. The front door swung open with a very faint squeak. He waited just out of sight, but he could sense no reaction of either the mundane or arcane variety. The trail headed up the stairs just to the left of the entry door, but he made a quick pass through the ground floor just in case and came up empty. The house was moderately well furnished, something that would have been fitting for a merchant of some means or a skilled craftsman. Neos made his way cautiously up the stairs, stepping carefully along the edge closest to the wall to avoid any creaking wood. As the upper floor came into view, a simple hallway, there was only a single open door in sight. He did not need the trail of power to know that his quarry was in that room, for as he paused at the top of the stairs he could hear hushed words drifting from the open door.

    “Very good. You're a natural. I suspected this would take an hour or so, but here we are.” An indistinct mumble followed, which earned a laugh from the man who had spoken. “Yes, it takes some getting used to. Communicating verbally will help your mind acclimated. Fine motor skills will be a challenge for a while yet, but have no fear, I can understand the mumbles without much trouble.”

    This time the other voice spoke up loud enough to hear: a feminine voice, but slurred like she was drunk or otherwise impaired. “How long? Hate it.”

    The man chuckled again. “Hard to say. Normally I would say a couple hours, but you've shattered all my guesses so far. You're already walking with more grace than expected.”

    “Grace? Pfft.”

    “Well, yes, stumbling and clutching the wall is not graceful, but moreso than being unable to walk at all. It's a matter of degrees.” There was silence for a few seconds, then the man burst out laughing again. “Very creative, interesting visual. I'm sure it would be quite unfortunate for whoever was made to experience angles of such excruciating degrees. Use you words though, remember that speaking aloud will help you adjust more quickly.”

    Neos wasn't quite sure what was going on, but it sounded like the girl was somehow hobbled and would remain so for some time. There was no honor in attacking a crippled target, but then he had never been one to care about honor. He edged up the last few steps, then held his breath as he slowly stalked down the hall, paying little attention to the continued chatter. It seemed the dragon could take a humanoid form, which meant that he was going to be rather skilled and best taken out by surprise. Regardless of whatever was afflicting the girl, he wasn't worried about her in the slightest. He'd heard tell of her use of fire in the fight against the Lord of Destruction, and no fire was a match for what Neos could do.

    Something the girl said in her slurred voice caught his attention: “Something's wrong.”

    The man sounded rather alert now. “What? Are you feeling sudden pain somewhere? Unable to feel part of your body?”

    “No, it's... something else. Nearby.”

    That was enough to push Neos into action. It wasn't certain that she was sensing his presence, but he wasn't willing to bet that she was not. He took the last few steps in a dash, took just an instant to get a glance at the room, and immediately fired off a bolt of sizzling green power at the man standing in the center of what appeared to be a sparsely furnished bedroom. A barrier went up, the sort of generic plane of magical force that was every magic user's first defense, and the green light absorbed it and pressed onward only to be met with a different barrier. This one was also absorbed, but much more slowly. It met a third barrier and was held at bay, green light slowly fading as a pale blue circle in the air grew stronger as the seconds passed. Neos nodded to himself and prepared something else, something more powerful. This dragon was indeed a skilled mage, moreso than expected given he was able to counter a magic-eating spell that so often proved a trump card in a battle of spells.

    “Kimberlyn, run.” The dragon, a green-haired man now who appeared more or less human, spoke to the girl without looking at her. She was standing as Neos had expected from their overheard conversation, one hand on the wall and seeming unsteady on her feet. As she slowly made her way toward the only window in the room, she looked at him and seemed to recognize him. Confusion was evident on her face, and he could imagine the questions running through her head: this man helped to kill the evil dragon, why is he now trying to kill the good one? Some unspoken communication passed between her and the dragon, made obvious by a sharp glance from her and a subtle head shake from him. They were likely plotting something, but that was of no concern.

    “How long do you think you can stop me?” Neos gestured at the man's battered form. “A couple minutes, perhaps? Just give me the girl and I'll let you live. There are few enough of your kind left these days that it would be a slight misfortune to kill you.”

    Another flicker of wordless communication passed between the two, then Kimberlyn hurried her pace toward the window. The dragon took one step to the side, fully shielding her from Neos with his body. “Have no fear, you won't be the cause of any slight misfortunes today. I have lived far too long to be fooled by petty tricks of magic. You don't have what it takes to best me, even wounded as I am.”

    “You talk a big game, at least.” Neos let loose half a dozen subtle spells as he spoke, each intended to do something entirely different. Five, including the invisible noose aimed toward the girl who was now opening the window, were deflected. The sixth, a hook of sorts, dug into the dragon's arm. It was not a physical hook, and there was no blood, but he was secured with a line of power just as well as if it had been an iron hook with a thick rope attached. “You lack the skill to back it up.”

    “Do I?” The dragon's words were mild with a hint of amusement. “And here I was doubting your skill.”

    Neos narrowed his eyes and let go of the line just before he felt a surge of energy racing through it. Had he held on for just a second longer, he would have been hit with the equivalent of a bolt of lightning. The bastard had let himself be hit in order to use Neos' magic against him. It was much harder than making a direct attack, but far more subtle as well, something only a highly skilled practitioner of the arcane arts would even dream of attempting. “I see. Perhaps more than a couple minutes, then.”

    The dragon inclined his head slightly. “Indeed, assuming you live that long, of course.” Neos could feel a few spells forming around his opponent, then a dozen, then many dozens, then too many to count. The dragon was preparing to launch an all out assault, and only about half of them were spells he recognized. None of them seemed powerful enough to do extensive damage on initial impact, but a thousand needles could kill just as surely as a sword, if not so quickly and cleanly.

    Neos worked quickly to form as many defenses as he could, grinding his teeth and muttering under his breath as he saw Kimberlyn slowly climbing out of the window and out of view. He would chase her down yet, but first he had a real bastard of a dragon to deal with. Formidable skills or not, the dragon would not be able to stand against the raw power he could bring to bear, if only he could find a moment to concentrate amidst the onslaught headed his way.

    Crystal stumbled out the front door of the mansion his people had been given, one hand pressed to the side of his head and the other keeping hold of the door handle to stay upright. He wasn't sure what that mage bastard had done to him, or how long he'd been unconscious, but it felt like something sharp was trying to dig its way out of his skull. The streets nearby still seemed to be mostly abandoned, only two people he could see and both of them sticking furtively to the sides of buildings as they moved, one moving away and one closer. Off in the distance he could see an airship rising above the buildings, which was only strange because it was the only such vessel he could see where normally there would be many in sight. He stared at the retreating figure, but after a minute or so it became clear that it was not the mage who knocked him out, just some elderly man making his way slowly down the street. Of course it wasn't going to be that easy to find the bastard, but for a brief moment there he'd held out hope.

    Movement out of the corner of Crystal's eyes made him whip round to look away from the old man, though he immediately regretted it as his head felt like a pile of glass shards had been jostled around inside. It took him a second to blink away the tears that welled up in his eyes, but once he could see again he froze in surprise. The approaching figure he'd spotted before was in fact two people, one familiar and one not. He called out the the familiar face, confusion evident in his voice. “Neb? I thought you got caught up in the madness when you disappeared.”

    “Almost did get caught up.” Neb hurried up the steps to the front porch of the large home with the stranger, a human woman wearing the armor of the Gencha military, in tow, and then promptly turned round to look for anyone else nearby. Satisfied with the lack of anyone around but the slowly retreating old man, he nodded and turned back to Crystal. “Dunno what's keeping you safe, but I've got some tricks up my sleeve that almost weren't enough.” He pulled up the left sleeve of his shirt and showed a band of faintly glowing marks just above the elbow, though there was a very bloody and seemingly very recent wound just below them. Crystal opened his mouth to ask, but Neb headed him off. “Magitech, built right into the flesh. See, I always was paranoid about them magic types playing with my head, so I did myself some research and made a shield of sorts. Wasn't even sure it worked until today, and I had to do a little emergency upgrade when I felt myself starting to get a little foggy and angry. Not angry like normal, with reasons and whatnot, just angry in general. Damned magic fuckery.”

    “I see.” Crystal rubbed rubbed at his head, trying to ignore the pain. His own apparent immunity to the fuckery was certainly strange, but he figured it could be something to do with his own magical abilities. The soldier Neb had brought along was a more confusing matter, so he gestured in her direction. “And how is she not all rabid and angry like the others?”

    “Talking about people like they aren't right there is rude, you know.” The woman gave him a mild look with one eyebrow slightly raised, just enough of a hint of sass to act as a subtle jab at his manners. “It's my helmet, according to Neb. It's a specialty piece, one meant to ward off damaging magical spells, but it never really worked so it was thrown in with the regular helmets. The inside has a pattern of magitech lights that was interesting, so I took it. Turns out it does block some magic, just not fireballs and the like. Neb found me on the street and said he had somewhere safe we could go hide and make plans to deal with all of this. I'm Joan, by the way, Captain of the Fifth Division of the Gencha Military.”

    “Uh, I'm Crystal, bandit turned war hero or something, it's really unclear at the moment. Nice to meet you?” He was faintly relieved to see her nod and murmur a response in kind. She exuded a sense of authority and discipline, the kind that had always made Crystal wary, so he figured playing nice was probably his best bet to avoid any problems. There were more important things to worry about at the moment, and he felt like kicking himself for getting distracted from them. “Neb, Kimberlyn is missing. She might have woken up and left on her own, or someone took her. That guy we saw suck the life out of a couple people and attack the dragon the other night was here and pretending to be a healer sent to help her, and he knocked me out. We need to go find her before that that guy gets to her or she gets hurt by one of the mobs.”

    The dwarf scratched at his beard as he looked up at Crystal. “Well, here I was hoping we could all just hide inside. We've only been pals for a coupla days, but I can't not help you go find your lady friend. Wanna help us out, Joan? You're welcome to stay here if you'd prefer, ain't none of your business after all.” Crystal opened his mouth to object to the 'lady friend' comment and its implications, but Joan spoke up before he could get a word out.

    “I've heard that name. She's the on that almost took down the dragon, right? Dracari woman?” Neb nodded. “Then if she's in trouble, I'll help. It's not like I'll be able to do anything useful if I stay here by myself anyway.”

    “Great, welcome to the team then.” Neb turned round and headed back down the steps to the street, and Joan followed without waiting for any sort of response or affirmation from Crystal.

    He watched them for a couple seconds, then sighed in exasperation and followed. What did it matter what they thought of his relationship with Kimberlyn anyway? So long as they were helping to find her and bring her home safely, they could think whatever definitely not accurate silliness they wanted. Neb and Joan were talking about some method of searching the city and how they would need many more sets of eyes to do it efficiently. That, at least, was something Crystal could help with. He focused hard for a few seconds, working past the slowly subsiding pain in his head, and small birds started popping into existence on an outstretched arm. After about a minute he had ten of them sitting there, so he called out to the two ahead of them. “Will this many be enough?”

    They turned to look, and Neb only grinned and nodded. Joan's eyes widened with surprise, then she looked Crystal over with an appraising eye. Eventually she nodded as well, slowly and with a thoughtful expression on her face. “Summoning magic. Interesting. Well, they'll each be worth more than a few sets of boots on the ground. We should be able to find your girlfriend in no time.”

    Crystal resisted the urge to immediately object to word choice, instead choosing to just sigh and mentally command his birds to go off searching for Kimberlyn. Corrections could be made later... or, another part of his mind suggested, those misinterpretations could be turned into truth, though he quickly tamped down on those thoughts. Such thoughts were distractions, and distractions were the last thing that he wanted right now, no matter how intriguing such distractions might be. What mattered now was finding Kimberlyn as quickly as possible and making sure she was safe, so that was what he focused on as he followed Neb and Joan on their way deeper into the center of the city.

    Titana watch the airships starting to rise up above the city with a bemused smile. They'd gotten rid of most of the pilots and crew members who normally worked on the ships, so these ones had to be controlled by others in the city who happened to have a little experience. It had been entirely expected, of course, and she was pleased she would have a chance to use the little tricks she and Jacob had planted. She'd always been amused by the prophecy telling of the return of the sealed gods, and this was her chance to fulfill part of it herself.

    The little park in the center of the city that the Lady of Chaos had taken as her base of operation was remarkably still for a city in the midst of what might as well be a civil war. Aside from the occasional grunt of pain that resulted from Pahn'kaks tormenting Rhea, there was almost no sound to be heard. The Lady of Chaos herself, in her stolen body, was sitting in silence and concentrating on maintaining her hold on the people of the city. It was a shame that she could only affect those who stayed exposed to the sky for a long time, that the ones huddling in their homes were safe, but those ones too would die eventually. In fact, some of them would die quite soon, and in a spectacular fashion.

    She waited and watched the airships, letting them get a taste of safety. The lead ship seemed to be heading toward the ground of its own volition, and Titana thought she could see a hint of flames springing to life on the deck. Wherever they'd been huddled in hiding from the Lady of Chaos' magic before, out on the ships they had no protection and were compelled to fight one another. All of the airships would probably end up falling without intervention at this rate. As amusing as that would be, it would also be less fun, and it would not fulfill that certain line of prophecy.

    Once the leading airship was about halfway to the wall of the city, and only a few hundred feet above the tops of buildings, Titana reached into her coat and pulled out two objects. One she only kept hold of for a brief moment for a reassuring look at the ace up her sleeve, a brilliant white rod about half a foot long with no markings other than a small indentation for a finger, before slipping it back into its special little pocket. The other was a purple orb that sat comfortably in her palm. It looked like solid glass, but the color inside swirled with lighter and darker patches in an apparently random pattern. She closed her fingers around it and squeezed, and it quickly proved to be something other than glass as her fingers sank into the odd material. It took a good deal of effort to clamp her fist around the little bubble of magic before it finally popped. Little bits of purple smoke darted off into the sky, and after a few seconds there was nothing of the orb left behind.

    Nothing happened for about a minute... and then a series of noises like shattering glass drifted into her ears, faint and barely heard, but enough for her to know what was happening. Titana looked up to find the nearest airship and looked to the crystals that powered it. Dark purple vines had burst out of the center of all three crystals present on that particular ship, sending large chunks and shards falling to the ground, and it kept on expanding rapidly. It took only the span of perhaps a dozen heartbeats for the crystals to be almost entirely consumed by the voracious vines. The airship was plummeting quickly toward the ground, and she could see all the rest following suit. A loud rumbling sound reached her ears a short while after the airship that had been in the lead crashed into the buildings below. It was a beautiful yet horrible sight, the culmination of so many years of her working in secret to pave the way for the Lord of Destruction's return to the world.

    “Two corrupt seeds sprout dark vines that attempt to choke the sky.” The words from behind pulled Titana's attention. The Lady of Chaos, in her stolen male body, now had her eyes open and was watching the airships fall. “More than an attempt, and one seed did more of the work, but accurate enough to fit. If any fools had doubts about our return, surely they will be laid to rest now.”

    Titana nodded slowly. That much of the prophecy was fairly clear, but the rest was rather strange, and she'd never worked up the nerve to ask about it. Now seemed a good time, though. “What is the next part about? The last gift that's supposed to decide all of this? Is that Godslayer?”

    The sour expression on the man's face made it clear that she'd been wise to avoid the question until now. Out of the corner of her eye, Titana could see Pahn'kaks had stopped toying with her prisoner and was listening as well. “Yes.” The Lady of Chaos spoke in clipped tones that hinted at restrained fury. “It was the last gift the gods gave the Immortals, given by the Lady of Mercy. The rest you needn't concern yourself with. It will never come to pass.”

    “Yes, of course, sorry.” Titana bowed her head, now regretting asking the question at all. Doubt lingered in her mind, and she wanted to ask what the source referred to in the prophecy was, because whatever it was it clearly needed to be protected. Then again, she supposed the gods would have to know that better than her, and they would have taken whatever precautions were necessary. Perhaps that was why the Lady of Chaos got irate with her? For seeming to question their plans? That would make sense.

    The Lady of Chaos closed her eyes and seemed to refocus on her magic, and the cracking of a whip made clear that Pahn'kaks was going back to work in her own twisted way. Titana sighed and went back to looking out at the city, watching the smoke start to rise from the crashed airships. Whatever the last parts of the prophecy meant, they were not for her to worry about. The gods would handle everything, and she just needed to mind herself and keep on their good side to earn a high place in the new world that would be made. She held some secret hopes that they might make her a god, or perhaps an Immortal, as a reward for her service. That wouldn't happen if she angered them with her foolishness, of course, so she resolved to keep quiet and do as she was told. Only a few more days of subservience in this wretched world, and then everything would be changed. It was a small price to pay for a world of eternal peace and bliss, after all. Just a few days, a few more days of keeping her mouth shut and following orders, and everything would be worth it... at least, she had to hope so, else why had she hurt and killed so many people?

    Nothing made waiting harder than a mind full of doubts and fears, but Titana settled in to do wait in silence nonetheless, repeating a quiet mantra to herself in her head: just a few more days, just a few more days, just a few more days.

    Nue watched the anarchy unfolding in the streets, standing at the window of a room on the top floor of the building they'd been using as their operation headquarters in the city before everything went to shit, and he had to suppress the urge to snarl and growl at the damned fools fighting below. It was an uncouth mannerism that he blamed on the predispositions of his species. This was not at all what he'd had in mind when he planned for a little chaos in the streets. A few fights, yes, that would have been fine. Even a death or two, assuming they could be spun into stories of how violent and aggressive Kitti's supporters were, would have been acceptable. The two sides battling it out in the streets leaving hundreds dead was not at all what he'd wanted. There was a time and place for slaughter, but it needed to be well-contained to be politically useful. This mess was far from being contained. Airships full of would-be refugees had fallen from the sky mere minutes ago, and now there were fires raging in the city, making for a sight eerily reminiscent of the stories he'd heard of the aftermath of the dragon attack.

    “Are you just going to stand there all day, or are you going to act?” Nue didn't bother to look to the source of the voice. Lady Snowball's distinctively high pitched voice was filled with annoyance. “We know Neos had something to do with this. You heard Necropolis' assessment of the arm bands he was playing with. He disappeared early in the day on some mysterious business, and then lo and behold, everyone loses their damned minds. Whatever that was with the ships, he probably had a hand in that too. We need to go and deal with him before it's too late.”

    “Would killing him stop this madness?” Nue spoke very mildly, with no emotional inflection in his voice. He turned to look at Snowball now, not at all surprised to find Necropolis standing behind her and somehow looking like her lackey despite being thrice her height. “Would it fix anything? Or do you just want some revenge for Neos being a pain in the ass for so long?”

    Necropolis cleared his throat, and Snowball motioned for him to speak. His voice was rich and deep, better suited for a rotund man rather than a spindly fellow like himself. “It might. At the very least, it would prevent him from making things any worse. I can feel something in the center of the city, growing stronger and more dangerous by the minute. I can't tell what it is, but it can't be anything pleasant. If nothing else, stopping that would be a good thing.”

    “And yes,” Snowball chimed in in a scathing tone, “I do have personal reasons for wanting the bastard dead. Do you have a problem with that?”

    Nue chuckled and shook his head. “Not at all, my lady, not at all. I was simply curious. I did hire you for this exact reason, after all.” He waved a hand toward the door. “Go on then, he's outlived his usefulness. Do try to bring back his body as intact as possible, though. I'd like to hang it from this window as a banner to show everyone that Lord Nue helped to end the fighting.”

    “Of course. We'll keep the face recognizable at the very least.” Lady Snowball gave him a curtsy, then headed for the door and beckoned Necropolis to follow. He was already using magic to pull water out of his clay jug and form it around his head like a helmet, saying something about shielding himself from Neos' influence, but Nue paid no attention to it.

    In truth he was quite livid with the rogue mage, no matter how nonchalant he'd pretended to be about ordering the killing. The most crucial part of their plans, the point that would have benefited most from Neos' presence, was the first months after Nue took control of Gencha. Taking over the city itself was not good enough: he needed to influence the leaders of the Ivory Circle to accept him as their new ruler. Some of them could be bought, but not enough. Others would need to be intimidated and blackmailed, or at worst literally forced to cooperate, and that was where Neos' dark uses of magic were intended to shine. Now he would need to find another mage who was skilled enough and corrupt enough to be willing to take payment and power in exchange for using their abilities to alter the minds of certain individuals. That or he would have to make an attempt to go about this in a cleaner way, to make himself out to be a true hero of the people and win his seat by popular acclaim. It was a damned annoyance either way, certainly.

    Regardless of the inconvenience of it, Neos has become a problem. Nue was not one to let such problems wait and fester. The faster Neos was killed, the faster he would be able to get on with his plans. He looked forward to being able to display the bastard mage's corpse as a trophy, if only as a cathartic release for all of the irritation he'd pent up when dealing with the man for so many months. That was something fun to look forward to, but for the moment there was nothing to do but wait... well, that wasn't quite true. Nue walked over to the liquor cabinet nearby and poured himself a healthy dose of brandy, then headed back for to the window. This was not at all what he'd planned for today's events, but he made the best of the situation. He would wait, and drink, and watch the city burn.

    Though the sound of fire and shouts and fighting filtered in from the distance, the area around Kimberlyn was oddly quiet. She'd been fleeing from the creepy mage guy for what felt like an hour, but it was hard to tell how long it really had been. At first she'd been stumbling from one building to the next, but eventually she progressed to walking without much need for support, and now she just felt a little shaky on her feet. Every once in a while she got updates from Gryal about the fight with the mage, which was apparently still going on. Not long after she'd left she had heard the building being torn apart by some kind of magic, so she was quite glad to be far away from it now.

    With no certain safe direction to head in, Kimberlyn made her way closer to the source of the evil feeling in the city. She would not get close to it, because Gryal had convinced her she was definitely not ready to take on something that felt so awful. It still felt like it was calling to her, but she could mostly ignore it now. The fact that she was heading straight toward it was only happenstance... or so she told herself. In a slight fit of irritation with herself, she took a left turn at the next crossing of streets she came to. Part of her mind rebelled and demanded she turn back, but she stuck to her decision... until she got to the next crossing and turned right. That wasn't so bad. She could just keep alternating left and right turns and stay about the same distance away from the source of that nauseating feeling.

    She continued on in that fashion for half a dozen more turns and found she was able to properly control that instinctual urge to head straight for the source of the evil feeling. The mental tricks Gryal had taught her were working pretty well. Turning fully away from the center of Gencha wasn't something she felt she could manage yet, but she was getting there. Every turn slightly away from it felt a little easier. Maybe in another hour or so of walking she would try walking straight in the opposite direction for a block. It would be slow progress, but—

    Something new tugged at her attention. Something very close by. Kimberlyn slowed down but kept walking, and as she did so the new feeling grew a little stronger. It reached a peak, then started to fade. She took a couple steps back and turned to face the building nearest to her, but that didn't feel right. The one straight across the street, however... One step closer to that and the feeling grew stronger still. It was very similar to whatever was covering the whole city, but much weaker. She got a vague view of what was going on inside, a man and a woman walking past the top of a set of stairs and into what looked to be some kind of torture room. It was just like the sight she'd had of the dragon that attacked the city, but cloudy rather than clear. She hadn't gotten even a hint of what was going on in the center of Gencha, so maybe her strange dragon powers were being blocked by the source of that, and the people inside the building might be trying to do the same. Frankly she had no idea how exactly this part of her strange powers worked because she hadn't gotten around to even telling Gryal about it, but it only made sense that people who gave off that evil sensation might want to hide their actions from magical spying abilities.

    Kimberlyn very much wanted to check the building. She had to be able to handle a couple people on her own, right? She could shoot dragonfire from her hands, after all. Even so, she was wary. Anything that tickled her new sense for evil things would definitely be dangerous, no matter how small it seemed to be. If they heard her coming and were able to prepare, then maybe the fire wouldn't be enough to deal with them. It was a huge risk, and for what gain? Just a sense of satisfaction for having done something? It was foolish and reckless and—

    Another momentary vision flashed before her eyes, this one a little longer and with more detail. The woman's eyes looked confused and fuzzy, and the man was closing manacles on her wrists that dangled from chains bolted to the ceiling. That sense of evil came from him, not both of them, and whatever he was doing would not end well for the woman. Kimberlyn had no idea how she could tell this, much the same as how she was uncertain how any of this was happening, but she had some sense that the man did not intend for the woman to live for very long.

    Before she consciously made any decision, her feet were already moving toward the large house. She slowed for a few seconds, then nodded to herself and hurried onward. This wasn't something that she could ignore. Kimberlyn wasn't a hero or anything, but she couldn't just let someone be tortured to death when she knew she could put a stop to it. The front door was locked, but with a little concentration she was able to slowly char the door around the bolt with a trick that she used to use just to warm up drinks, but now with the power of dragonfire it would probably instantly boil them. The fancy wood blackened and then slowly progressed to a dull grey color, and after a couple minutes she was able to push the door in without much effort. The bolt remained held in place by the metal fixture on the door frame, but the wood around the other end had crumbled to ashes as the door moved and left just a metal plate with a couple loose screws hanging where it had once been secured to the door.

    The small hallway just inside the door was far more indicative of wealth than the simple exterior had been. The walls were paneled in some dark wood Kimberlyn didn't recognize, very intricate tapestries hung from the walls on both sides, and there were a pair of marble pillars each holding a vase made of impressively thin porcelain. The only word that came to mind to describe it was 'opulent.' It wasn't a word she was accustomed to using, but it felt right. Whoever owned this house clearly wanted people to know that they were very wealthy. It was, quite frankly, rather disgusting. This small area alone held enough wealth to feed thousands of poor people for a month, and all it was doing was sitting here to be looked at. She was tempted to knock the vases over just to make a point, but she was not petulant enough to risk alerting the creepy man to her presence with the noise.

    There were three doors on the foyer: one to the left, one to the right, and one opposite the front door. She tried the left door first and it opened into a spacious closet with a variety of coats and canes and the like. The door on the right was locked, but a minute spent charring the wood around the handle was enough to get it open. It was like a twisted mirror to the coat closet: where that one held normal things one might wish to grab on the way out the door on a normal day, this looked like a room stocked for someone to grab gear on their way out to do some killing. Swords, maces, a few spears, some compact crossbows that looked like they could be operated with one hand, a wide variety of knives, and a shelf full of small glass bottles filled the space. The bottles were almost certainly poisons, though their labels were marked in strange figures that made no sense to Kimberlyn. She had no use for weapons, so she left the disturbing little armory and headed for the final door in the foyer.

    The door opened without resistance to reveal another decadently furnished room, this one larger and featuring a straight staircase that lead up to a balcony of sorts on the second floor, with a couple doors visible above the ornate wrought iron railing. Her initial vision had showed the people walking by what appeared to be the top of those very stairs. As tempted as she was to sneak around and see what other creepy things were hidden away in this house, the chance of making noise and getting caught off guard was high, and more likely than not she would be killed if that happened. Snooping could wait until after the bad guy was dealt with. Kimberlyn made her way slowly up the stairs, stepping lightly on her bare feet and very slowly lowering her weight onto each step as she went. As she neared the top she became certain this was exactly what she'd seen before, and the door off to the right was certainly the one she'd seen the man and woman enter. There was a hallway off to the left that she hadn't seen in her vision, but it appeared clear for the moment so she ignored it and made her way toward the door with the sense of evil radiating through it.

    Kimberlyn stopped in front of it and listened. All she could make out were some murmurs, the faint cadence of speech without enough clarity to be intelligible. After a few seconds of straining to hear, the strange vision power kicked in again and she could see and hear as if she had passed just inside the door. The woman was standing with her arms above her head, now fully secured in the manacles, and there was a new cut on her cheek, a fine line that was dribbling little bits of blood down her face. She was staring at the man with... something that wasn't fear, that was for sure. Lust? Love? It was creepy, whatever it was. Something about it felt wrong to Kimberlyn. She wasn't so innocent or naive to think that there weren't people who enjoyed this sort of thing, but that didn't seem to be the case here. It felt like the woman was being forced to enjoy this, and the man was the source of it. He was walking slowly back and forth in front of the woman, holding the knife that had likely made the cut on the woman's face, and speaking to her, apparently in the middle of giving her orders with whatever ability he had to force her to obey.

    “There will be no screaming, no resisting, no backing away. You want this. This is what you've lived your entire life for. Every day you have lived without me was a wasted day, and now you feel complete. You will enjoy the pain. You will beg me to continue whenever I stop.”

    Well that was more than enough, as far as Kimberlyn was concerned. The vision faded as she moved, and this time she didn't bother trying to be subtle. She held her hands out, thumbs and index fingers touching, and blasted the handle of the door with a short burst of dragonfire. A quick kick sent it slamming open, and she stepped inside with her hands raised and ready. The creepy guy cut off mid-sentence and turned to stare at her, but the chained woman kept her eyes on him. Kimberlyn noted that as the man stopped talking, some confusion entered the chained woman's expression. The man was only startled for a second, and his expression quickly shifted into a friendly smile.

    “Well well, what have we here?” His voice was smooth and pleasant, not harsh and commanding as it had been when he spoke to his captive. “An unexpected visitor, and a feisty one at that. Interesting.” As he spoke, Kimberlyn felt a cold tingle build along her scalp and down her spine She could feel her connection with Gryal shudder for a moment, and that was when she knew what was going on: the creep was trying to affect her mind with magic, but she was being shielded by the dragon's presence. Even so, she decided to play along for a few moments; that knife was held ready to throw, and she wasn't certain she could beat it. She drew her brows together in mock confusion and let her hands drop a little, pointing now at the man's legs instead of his chest. He smiled and nodded slowly. “Good, good. Now, why don't you tell me what you're doing here?”

    Kimberlyn blinked and stared at him for a few seconds before answering in an uncertain mumble. “I came to save her? I saw her. In a vision.”

    “A vision? Fascinating.” The man gestured toward the chained woman, and as he did that cold tingling feeling grew much stronger. It seemed like his magic was getting inside her head just fine, but Gryal's connection prevented it from actually doing anything to her. “Does she look like she needs to be saved? She's enjoying this, isn't she?”

    “Yes.” Kimberlyn licked her lips, glancing at the woman before looking back to the man. “She's enjoying it. I was wrong. I'm sorry.”

    The man chuckled, and she could see a predatory twist to his smile now. “You really came here to join the fun, didn't you? You've always wanted to be treated like the gutter whore you truly are, isn't that right?”

    Kimberlyn opened her eyes wide and nodded slowly. She understood his little game, and she knew what was coming next. She had in fact lived on the streets for some years, and this was not the first time she'd encountered a man who wanted to dominate others for their own amusement. This one was only different in that he had a nice house and some fancy magic tricks to get what he wanted rather than a shitty hovel and a gang of thugs to back him up. She could play along just a little bit more before ending this farce. “I've always wanted it. Please, can I join the fun?”

    The man laughed, and this time it was dark and ugly without even the thin veneer of civility. “Oh yes, you certainly can. The more the merrier, as they say. At least you don't put up a fight like this dumb cunt. Go wait for me over there.” He gestured with the knife toward what looked like a more compact version of the stocks used in some cities to punish minor criminals via public humiliation. He turned back toward the chained woman, apparently intent on getting back to work on her now that he'd dealt with the intruder.

    “I only see one dumb cunt here.” By the time the man was turning back around with his knife arm raising, Kimberlyn already had her hands back up with dragonfire spewing forth. The creep put his hands up and some of the fire deflected off to the sides, but whatever defense he'd tried to use quickly proved to be not enough. The fire broke through and the man started screaming and shouting words, but they were impossible to understand. He stumbled back into a table full of metal tools of some kind, and Kimberlyn followed to keep her dragonfire on him. The metal began to melt rather quickly, and she realized that the creep was managing to do something to protect himself, but she could see his skin blackening and cracking through the flames regardless. It took a full minute for the man to finally fall silent, and a little more for him to stop twitching, and by then half of the room was on fire.

    Kimberlyn left the corpse and hurried to the chained woman, who was staring at her as if she was some kind of monster. Fair enough, given the circumstances, but there was no time to sort it out right at that moment. If there had been a key to the manacles then it probably got melted in the fire. Those chains just so happened to also be metal, so a solution presented itself immediately. Kimberlyn held her hands up to melt the chains, trying to control the force of the fire but not really succeeding as intended. Rather than cleanly slicing through the metal in thin lines, she ended up melting a couple whole links from each chain and setting the ceiling on fire. The room was quickly filling with smoke, but by then the woman was free and looked less afraid, more confused. Kimberlyn grabbed her hand and lead her out, rushing her down the stairs and outside, then off a ways from the building before she slowed even a little. There was no smoke or flame visible from the outside yet, but that would change quickly and she didn't want to be anywhere near the place when tht happened.

    Finally, after a couple minutes of quickly walking away, Kimberlyn turned off into an alley of sorts between large houses and tugged the mystery woman in behind her. She turned round to face her and found that the fear and confusion seemed to have given way to anger. There was no telling if that was a good or bad thing just at the moment, so she had to inquire. “So, uh, do you.. remember what happened?”

    “Yes.” The woman's voice was clipped and harsh with the same anger that contorted her face. “I should be purely grateful, but I'm quite annoyed that I didn't get to kill that bastard myself. Thank you though, truly.” It was hard to take the gratitude as genuine when said with anger, but Kimberlyn could see the truth of it in the woman's eyes. She suspected anger was the only thing keeping her from breaking down and crying, and she couldn't fault the woman for that at all. “I don't know how you found me, but I'm glad you did. You probably don't recognize me since you were passed out at the time, but we met the night of the dragon fight. I'm Kitti, and if I recall correctly you're Kimberlyn.”

    Kimberlyn stared in silence for a few moments. “Uh, yes, that's me. And you're...” She glanced back toward the creep's house and saw the first wisps of smoke rising. “I guess that explains some things. How long were you in there? Do you know what's happening in the city today?”

    “I went there this morning. Jacob must have been manipulating my mind since the day after the fight, maybe even before then, and made me want to see him.” Kitti shuddered and a haunted look passed over her face, but the anger sprang back into place quickly. “What's happening in the city? It must be bad if you're phrasing it like that.”

    “Yeah, it's bad. I'm not sure of the details, but—“ She cut off as a familiar voice spoke into her mind.

    ”I lost the fight, but I made it out alive. The mage, Neos Runeeye, is coming after you again. He is very dangerous. Find allies, keep moving. I will join you when I can, but I must rest and recover from my wounds. You may tell Kitti about me, if you wish.”

    Kimberlyn wasn't sure how Gryal could have known about Kitti, since she was doing the thing he'd taught her to block her thoughts and such, but that didn't matter right now. Kitti was looking at her with concern in her eyes, probably because of her face going white with fear on hearing that the scary mage guy was after her again. They had to get moving again, so she decided to give a quick overview and explain more as they walked. “Some kind of evil mind manipulation stuff is going on all throughout the city and making people fight each other, like a civil war between your supporters and Lord Maldov's supporters, and it's all coming from the center of the city. Also you're not the only one with an evil creep problem, but mine is someone called Neos who seemed a lot scarier than that Jacob guy and he's after me again so we should probably run. Oh, and Peregrine's secret dragon friend Gryal is now my secret dragon friend? Not so secret now that I've told you. I've got some kind of strange dragon magic and he's helping me figure it out. He was fighting Neos but he lost and told me through this weird mind link thing that it happened. It's a long story, but we really need to get going so Neos doesn't find me.” It all came out in a rambling rush, but the quickly shifting emotions on Kitti's face seemed to track well enough to confirm comprehension.

    “That... does sound like a long story.” Kitti nodded slowly. “If Lady Peregrine's ally approves of you, then I guess I can trust you too. Let's go. I want to hear everything you know about this mess, and then we're going to go try to fix it. I will not let Lady Peregrine's sacrifice be in vain.” The anger was back in her voice in full force, and as they headed back out of the alley the way they came their positions were reversed: Kitti was leading and pulling Kimberlyn along behind her. A small bird fluttered past their heads as they left the alley, then sped away back in the direction of the now vigorously burning house.

    Kimberlyn was rather dubious about the idea of going and trying to deal with whatever was causing this mess in the city, but at least that was a matter of uncertainty. She was very certain that Neos would kill her if he caught her, so uncertain doom was definitely preferable. As she let herself be lead through the streets, she explained everything she could to Kitti and hoped that the woman had some kind of plan rather than just a heart full of anger and a desire for revenge.

    There was a strange texture to the air that Pahn'kaks couldn't quite place. It wasn't the air necessarily, nor all the magic flying about. It was like she'd suddenly developed a new sense and something was constantly but barely stimulating it, as if some unseen hand was hovering just over the nape of her neck, not quite touching but sensed by the fine hairs nonetheless. It also reminded her of the calm but tense air in the eye of an intense storm. As she thought about it she spun Rhea, still held in place by rope and a set of anti-magic arm binders, in an idle circle. The captive woman was no longer growling through her gag or angrily glaring at everything around her. She was being smart now, conserving her energy by staying still and attempting to catch bits of sleep whenever she was not being actively tormented. The sun was starting to set, which meant that Pahn'kaks had been holding her captive for something around 12 hours. She'd already done basically everything that could be done short of actually maiming the woman, and she only went the bloody route when intending to kill, so in truth she was only continuing to play with Rhea to keep herself looking busy.

    After a while she finally found a name for the strange feeling, one dredged up from the ancient past. Mortal scholars and philosophers had come to the conclusion that Immortals could not access the gifts of prophecy due to a lack of connection with death. While that was mostly true, and no Immortal had ever displayed the ability to have true visions of the future, it was not entire story. There were some accounts of Immortals having a sense of events to come. Not visions or prophecies, nothing in the distant future, but a feeling of momentous events to come in the near future. A few of them experienced it in the hours before the first monster attack. Some stories said Godslayer had felt it as much as a day before he was slain. Those few who wrote on it called it 'the imminence' to refer to the feeling being a sign of something important coming in the imminent future. Pahn'kaks had wondered what that feeling was supposed to be when she read about it centuries ago, and now she knew. It did not bode well for her at all. Every story of the imminence ended in the death of those who felt it.

    Thus prepared in her own mind, Pahn'kaks was the least surprised of those gathered in the park to see two people making their way straight down the street heading their way. The first sign of their approach was the faint jangling of loose chains. Titana made a noise like a cat being strangled, and that alerted the Lady of Chaos into opening her eyes and staring at the approaching pair. Two women who were supposed to be dead or on their way to the grave were instead walking boldly into the midst of their enemies, apparently unarmed and with nobody there to help them. They had no hope. Pahn'kaks supposed that unless they had something powerful hidden up their sleeves, then her death would come at the hands of the Lady of Chaos rather than vengeful heroes come to save the city. That would be fitting, at least, though rather unsatisfying. She held out a hand to stop Rhea's spinning and slapped her once to get her eyes open. The bound woman saw the two visitors and surprise was followed by outright horror on her face. If the two had some secret trump card ready, then Rhea certainly knew nothing of it. Pahn'kaks stepped back and used a little trick of magic to make herself fade from the senses of the mortals so she could just observe whatever happened without getting involved.

    “Interesting.” The Lady of Chaos, still in the body of a human male, stood and watched the women approach. “Is this all the fight Gencha could muster? A half-breed monster and a woman who couldn't even fight off the most vulgar and unsophisticated sort of mind control? How pathetic. How do you hope to stand against a god?”

    Kitti and Kimberlyn stepped from the street onto the grass and did not stop moving. The Dracari woman looked nervous and worried and couldn't take her eyes off the Lady of Chaos, but the human was full of anger and determination. Had those eyes been the silver of an Immortal rather than the dull brown of a mortal, Pahn'kaks would have been worried; an Immortal with such conviction would be a frightful foe, but a mortal would still be like a kitten fighting a tiger no matter how strongly they felt about the matter. This was not a fight that required her assistance, so she stayed back by her prisoner as Titana and the Lady of Chaos walked forward to meet the gutsy mortals.

    “A god? That makes sense.” Kitti stopped walking only once the distance between the two pairs was down to ten feet or so. “Which one are you, then? Not the Lord of Destruction, I presume.”

    “No. I am the Lady of Chaos.” Pahn'kaks was positioned off to the side enough to see the smirk on the stolen face. “The body is borrowed, of course. So much simpler than crafting one's own physical form. Why have you bothered to come here? You must realize you're hopelessly outmatched.”

    Kitti nodded. “Of course, but I had to come anyway.” She lifted one hand to point at Titana, accompanied by the clink of metal on metal as the chain links hanging from her manacle moved with the gesture. “She needs to die. Whatever else happens, I refuse to tolerate traitors like her living to profit from their deeds.”

    Titana snorted out a laugh. “And why do you think you'll even get a chance? Did Jacob scramble your brains a bit too much? Lost your capacity for reason, hm? I always knew you were just an upjumped peasant fool, but this—”

    “Very well.” The Lady of Chaos spoke over her underling with boredom clear in her voice. Titana stared in shock and horror; Pahn'kaks recognized those emotions from her own moment of revelation that the freed gods were not in fact benevolent saviors. “I've no more use for her. Kill her if you can. What's wrong with your pet?” She gestured with dismissively toward the Dracari, who had been staring at her with teeth bared the entire time.

    “Oh, she's here to kill you.” Kitti said it so nonchalantly that Pahn'kaks was certain for a moment she must have misheard it. “It's what she was made for, after all. Here's hoping Jorick knew what he was doing.”

    The fight kicked off an instant after she finished speaking. Kimberlyn darted forward with an inhuman howl and tacked the Lady of Chaos... and more surprising still, she managed to actually send the god sprawling. Pahn'kaks could feel the power the god had summoned immediately to stop the attack, but it evaporated the moment it touched the Dracari. That was absolutely terrifying. If Jorick had managed to make something totally immune to magic... Pahn'kaks sent out her own little wisp of magic, just a light shove of wind to test it, and it connected without issue. Now that was intriguing. The girl was untouched by the power of a god, but not free of the grasp of magic in general. She'd never been the keenest student of magic and could not even begin to fathom how such a trick could have been accomplished, but it was a damned good one. Now she understood why Kitti had walked in with so much confidence: Kimberlyn was the secret weapon.

    Kitti was not far behind in rushing her intended target, but it was clear from the very beginning that she had no special advantage like her companion. Titana was a fairly skilled fighter, but Kitti was an untrained combatant fueled with rage. The outcome of that fight was obvious from the start, so far as Pahn'kaks was concerned. Kitti threw a lot of punches but nothing really landed; the flailing chains from her manacles managed to crack into Titana's hands and arms as she deflected blows, but not enough to do real damage. It didn't take long for the tide of that fight to reverse as Titana started to fight back, first stopping Kitti's advance with a couple strikes to the chest, then sending her reeling back with a solid punch to the nose that caused a trickle of blood to start flowing from one nostril.

    The fight between the god and the strange Dracari was far more interesting, so Pahn'kaks focused on that rather than the mortals pummeling each other. It seemed the Lady of Chaos was not very skilled in a hand-to-hand fight, but Kimberlyn knew what she was doing. She was straddling the god's stomach and raining a series of merciless blows on anything she could reach, and the weak and flailing defense of her pinned opponent meant that most punches landed square in the face. It took a little while for the Lady of Chaos to figure out a way around the Dracari's immunity to godly magic: instead of trying to make a direct assault, she reached out and grabbed a clump of earth with her power and threw it. The clod of dirt and grass smacked into Kimberlyn's side, but it didn't have enough force to even disturb her. The next attack, however, was more weighty. A rock floated up from the ground and smashed into the back of the Dracari girl's head, sending her sprawling forward and off of the Lady of Chaos.

    Pahn'kaks supposed that would be the end of the fight. The interlopers would be killed, then the Lady of Chaos would kill her for not helping in the fight, and that would fulfill the deadly premonition of the imminence. She was just getting around to lamenting how it would be such a boring way to go when she spotted something speeding through the air. An arrow caught the Lady of Chaos in the spine as she pushed herself up to stand, just a couple inches below the neck. For a moment her lower body wobbled, unable to move due to he severed spinal cord, but then the god's magic kicked in and she held the body upright without relying on biology. Many more arrows followed as the Lady of Chaos turned to meet this new threat, and she was left looking like a grotesque pincushion within mere moments. A Kitsune man was running down the street toward the park now, with an array of summoned bows floating over his head, and he had a dwarf and a human following close behind.

    “So you're the cause of all this, Gwazi? What the hell are you?” The Kitsune's shouted questions were angry, and they belied his total ignorance of what he'd walked into. Whether he died in ignorance or informed of his folly would depend on the god's mood.

    Despite her stolen body being crippled now by fists and arrows, the Lady of Chaos seemed amused by the man's sudden appearance. “Crystal. I thought you would be caught up in the fighting. How are you resisting my power?” Confusion passed over her mangled face as she stared at him, then glanced over to Kitti who was busy trying and mostly failing to fend off Titana's attacks. “Your friends have shields, but you two... Something to do with the prophecy? Red-eyed ravens. Hmm.” Pahn'kaks hadn't noticed it before, but once it was mentioned she looked over and saw Kitti's hand was marked with the sigil, the same red-eyed raven as was emblazoned across Crystal's face. After a few seconds, in which the Kitsune and his two followers made it to the park and cautiously slowed their approach, the Lady of Chaos waved a dismissive hand. “No matter, I'll kill you all regardless. I am a god, the Lady of Chaos, and I tire of these distractions. Begone.”

    Another gesture sent a wave of power toward the three newcomers, enough to send them all flying hundreds of feet away to their inevitable death... but the result was far less impressive. The power washed over Crystal harmlessly, just the same as Kimberlyn, and his negating presence and the shields the other two had in place were enough to dampen the blows so they were only shoved back sprawling and rolling a few dozen feet down the street. Pahn'kaks was quite intrigued now; whatever Jorick had done to make the Dracari girl immune to the power of the gods, he must have done the same to this Kitsune. Very interesting indeed, and it was quite unfortunate that they would die before she would have a chance to inspect them and try to figure out the trick of it for herself. Crystal's bows began firing rapidly once more, and The Lady of Chaos growled in annoyance and motioned to lift a large rock to put an end to the man.

    “Just die already!”

    A burst of flame from behind the Lady of Chaos followed the irritated shout. Kimberlyn had recovered from the rock to the head, though she had blood running down her scalp. She was sitting up with both hands held forward, and the fire spraying forth was not at all normal. It was dragonfire, but something more than that as well. Little shards of invisible energy clung to the Lady of Chaos as the fire engulfed her, and while Pahn'kaks was unsure what they were meant to do, it was clear that this was another trick meant for gods specifically. Whatever it was Jorick had done to bring this Dracari girl into existence, it was an utter abomination of nature, a manipulation of life in ways that most Immortals would have never even considered. He had created a weapon for use against the gods, and it was proving extremely effective. She could sense the Lady of Chaos' powers growing weaker as the strange little pieces of magic stuck to her, to the point that she was left unable to do anything but desperately hold her stolen body together under the assault. Stolen or not, the destruction of a god's physical form was said to be extremely painful and weakened them greatly for a while, so Pahn'kaks could understand why she'd resorted to full on defensive measures. The Lady of Chaos' head was just starting to turn in her direction, likely intending to demand her assistance, when the whole world went white and pain washed over her.

    One moment Crystal was standing and and directing a dozen bows to fire at the bastard who had caused all the trouble in the city, and the next he was laying on his back covered in dirt and gasping for air. He had no idea what had happened. There was a flash of bright light, then the next thing he knew he was laying there in pain. He found he could move, though it hurt, and he slowly pushed himself up to look around. Somehow he'd gone from standing in the park to being back in the street, and... the park was in ruins. There was a crater in the middle of it, where Kimberlyn and the god had been, and he quietly panicked for a moment before he saw her laying a ways back on the other side of that crater. The trees had been mostly knocked down, including the one from which the Hand of Justice had been hanging. He couldn't see the god or Kitti or the woman Kitti had been fighting, but there was one figure still upright and moving.

    “My apologies for taking so long to complete my task, Lady of Chaos. I was busy fighting a dragon.” The man who'd claimed to be a healer, the one who had knocked Crystal unconscious, was walking through the park. After he spoke, what Crystal had assumed was a clump of blasted earth from the crater moved and was hauled up into a standing position; they did not stand, but rather it was like some force had grabbed them by the head and pulled them up. It was the god, or what was left of it. Kimberlyn's fire had turned them into a blackened husk, though the eyes somehow managed to survive, albeit bloodshot and now looking around eratically. “Can you stand on your own?”

    “Not yet.” The words came out in a harsh rasp. Clearly some damage had been done to the throat as well. The god's eyes were still moving around as if frantically searching for something, but Crystal couldn't tell what in the world that something could be. “She did something to me. I can't even sense what it is. My power is mostly sealed.”

    “Yes, I can see what you mean.” The man looked the blackened body over and nodded. “It would take some study to understand how it was done, but you've got little barbs of magic impaling you. They're more or less death incarnate, wholly out of reach of the gods. Fascinating. I suppose that's the source of the oddities in her energy.”

    “Him too.” The gods eyes were still moving freakishly, but its head turned toward Crystal. “Lacking in the offensive ability, but my power could not touch him. Jorick was clever, it seems, but not clever enough to account for us having mortal followers. Deal with them, Neos, then fix whatever she did to me.”

    “Of course.” Neos bowed to the mangled form. As he turned toward Kimberlyn, Crystal felt a hand on his shoulder.

    “Not lookin' good, eh?” Neb's low whisper was full of sarcastic bite. “C'mon, let's get you up.” Another hand grabbed his other shoulder, and he saw Joan leaning down over him. She was battered and had a nasty cut on her forehead, but at least she was standing. Together the dwarf and human managed to haul Crystal upright, and they held him back when he immediately tried to walk forward. Neb hissed at him and shook his head. “You crazy? That monster seems outta commission, but the mage is damned strong. I bet the only reason you're alive is he didn't wanna kill his pals too.”

    “Kimberlyn.” It came out as a hoarse croak. Crystal cleared his throat and tried again. “He's going to kill her. I have to stop him.”

    The dwarf grimaced. “Aw, fuck. Right, well, you ready Joan?”

    “Is anyone ever really ready for a suicide mission?” She drew her sword and let out a heavy sigh. “Let's get it over with.”

    Crystal struggled to summon new bows. For the moment he could only manage five, and they started firing immediately. He spotted the bound woman on the ground near a fallen tree, and she was struggling ineffectually against her ropes and the metal binding her arms; Crystal pushed himself a little more and conjured a couple mice to go chew her ropes and a small snake with a crooked metal-tipped tail to pick the lock, though if the lock was complex enough then that simple creature would not suffice. The arrows shattered on some invisible barrier a few feel away from Neos' back, and the mage kept on walking as if he hadn't noticed it. The charred god simply stood there limply, eyes rolling wildly, and did nothing to warn of nor stop the trio passing by. Arrows were still shattering uselessly against a magic shield by the time Neos reached Kimberlyn. He stooped over, grabbed her by the throat, and lifted her up into the air.

    “Did you come to save her?” Neos turned his head now, looking over his shoulder at Crystal. “I'd expected to have her dead before you saw her again, but her dragon friend got in the way. This is better. You'll get to see her life fade in front of your eyes. Won't that be fun?”

    “Fuckin' psychopath!” Neb reached into his coat and threw something at Neos. It struck the same shield that was stopping all the arrows, and rather than breaking or falling away it seemed to stick to the invisible surface. As it floated there, seemingly in midair, Crystal could see it was a roughly spherical metal object, and it was sending out blue sparks as it floated there. It wasn't just floating though; as he watched, he could see it slowly inching toward the mage. The continuing rain of arrows was also making it farther in, and rather than shattering into splinters they were only being cracked before falling to the ground. Whatever Neb had thrown, it was certainly working.

    At least, it was until Neos flicked his free hand at it. The metal ball exploded in a little puff of fire, and the arrows went back to their previous lack of effectiveness. Crystal collided with the invisible wall, though he slowed enough to not slam into it enough to hurt himself. He summoned a pair of swords and started hacking at it, though to no immediate effect. Joan came up on his side and started doing the same with her weapon. Neb stood back and rummaged through his pockets, muttering to himself. The bastard standing there inside his shield, holding Kimberlyn aloft, simply chuckled at their struggles and watched them.

    Crystal growled in frustration and stopped pointlessly beating at the shield, though Joan continued undeterred. “If you hurt her, I swear I will kill you if it's the last thing I do.” He could see Kimberlyn struggling feebly in the mage's grasp, still quite apparently not recovered from the blast that sent her flying. She seemed to be trying to raise her hands, to get them into position to shoot fire at her captor. Crystal smashed the shield and worked to keep his attention off of her. “I'll do it slowly, too. I'll get my dwarf friend here to make something to lock your power away, and then I'll keep you alive for years. Every day will be endless agony for you, I swear it. I will not rest until you suffer a million times whatever harm you do to her.”

    Neos grinned and nodded. “Yes, good, that's the spirit. Watch closely now.” Kimberlyn got her hands together finally and a spark of fire sprang to life between them. At the same moment, her eyes opened wide and her body froze stiff as stone. The color started draining slowly from her face and the little bit of power coalescing between her hands flickered into nothingness. “Oh, yes, this is wonderful. This takes only a second or two for a normal person, but she's just brimming with power. Lovely. Watch as she withers away.”

    “No!” Crystal pulled deep into his reserves of energy and summoned as many spears as he could, dozens of them all floating in the air, and sent them all stabbing into the shield. The shield buckled under the force, and for a few seconds it could be seen by his mundane mortal eyes, like a sheet of liquid silver floating in a dome. They pressed forth and a high-pitched squealing could be heard, like nails on a chalkboard, as the magic seemed ready to give way.

    Neos made another quick little gesture with his hands and the spears were forced away, and as they shoved into the newly reinforced shield they were pulverized into tiny fragments. The tip of Joan's sword met the same fate as she took another swing at the shield. “You should have done that when your dwarf threw his magitech toy. You're far too late, now that I have her power to work with.”

    Crystal could see Kimberlyn slowly shriveling in his grasp, like all the fluid was being sucked out of her. He tried slashing at the shield with his two summoned swords, but they disintegrated as well. He moved to throw himself at it, ready to try pummeling it with his fists, but Joan and Neb quickly grabbing him and stopped him. They held him back as he struggled, and they all watched in horror as Kimberlyn's once vital form withered into a dead husk. As Neos dropped her wasted body, the human and dwarf had to shift to holding Crystal up as he would have fallen to his knees without their support. He couldn't take his eyes off of her body. Just a minute ago she'd been alive, wounded but alive, and now she was gone.

    Lady Snowball cursed under her breath as she rounded a corner and the epicenter of the madness came into view. She'd been hoping to get to Neos before he could get his hands on anyone powerful to drain, but apparently that was a bust, given the way he was glowing in her vision like a miniature sun. Killing mages was her forte, but she'd never gone up against someone with that kind of power. For once she was glad she had Necropolis backing her up, rather than being mildly peeved at his constant presence.

    It was hard to tell exactly what had happened in the demolished little area that had once been a park, even with her special sight that could trace magic that had happened recently in an area. It was a special gift passed down her family line, and their prestige had been built on favors from lords and ladies and kings and queens who needed troublesome mages dealt with. Normally the sight made for a clear story of what had happened in an area, but this was just a mess. The explosion that tore the place up had clearly come from Neos approaching down a nearby street, and she could see the traces of his shields and some kind of attacks on them, but the details were fuzzy and it was hard to see anything prior to the explosion. There was a darkness laying over it all like a thick fog, and it seemed to come from the charred husk of a person standing there mostly ignored. A couple things off to the sides caught her attention, a little white rod with a hefty deal of power laying beside a woman struggling to her feet and the trails of a few conjured animals leading to one side of the park, but she dismissed those as unimportant. The only thing that mattered at the moment was that sickeningly powerful man standing in the center of the mess.

    Necropolis hurried his pace to get beside Snowball and cleared his throat. “He's strong. This is going to be tough.”

    Snowball simply sighed and nodded and kept running. The tall man's penchant for stating the obvious was one of his more annoying traits. As they drew close to the decimated park she gave him his orders. “Stay behind me and support unless things go wrong. Try to keep everyone else alive if it won't compromise the mission. Stay away from the burned one, it's dangerous.” Necropolis managed a half-bow even while running and slowed his pace to let her take the lead. His quiet obedience when things got serious made up for his more irksome habits, she supposed.

    Neos clearly noticed her quick approach, but he didn't bother turning to face her. He was instead watching a Kitsune man being held up by a dwarf and a human, who were slowly pulling the limp figure away from the mage. That was good. Snowball drew her sword and murmured a few short words under her breath; the blade burst to life with previously invisible runic markings now glowing with harsh, red light. Even then Neos didn't bother turning toward her, the cocky bastard. Snowball was happy to make him regret the arrogance. She could see his shields looming, many layers of them stacked atop each other, each a little different from its peers. Normally that would make for a nigh impenetrable barrier, but not for her.

    Snowball rushed in sword first and took a swing at Neos' leg. The sword sliced through the shields like they were sheets of paper. It was made with a very strange sort of magic, perfected over generations, that negated other magic it came in contact with. The tiny threads of energy that formed each shield were burned into nothingness before the metal of the blade could touch them, and each layer of shield fizzled into nothingness as the sword pierced it, each making a barely audible cracking noise that combined to sound like someone far away breaking a window. That got the mage's attention, but not before the sword crashed through the last of the shields and dug into his thigh.

    “You devious little bitch!” Neos pulled himself back away from her using his magic, putting some distance between himself and her deadly sword while he prepared a retaliatory strike. A green blue sped toward her face, but she casually blocked it with the blade of her sword as she stepped over the shriveled husk of a person that the mage had left behind. “What is that damned sword? Why aren't you with Nue?”

    Lady Snowball gave the sword a showy spin, rolling the hilt through her fingers. “You mean you never noticed? It's a family heirloom. It's the reason Nue hired me in the first place. Did you think he was stupid enough to trust you?” A wave of dozens of little spells flew at her as she spoke, and she used the twirling blade to block most of them. Those few that made it through crashed against a shell of water that sprang up around her; Necropolis' doing, a little technique they'd practiced in secret preparation for this very day. “Him as well. Lord Maldov wouldn't hire a rabid dog without having a couple people ready to put it down when it snapped. Seems like you've gone and snapped, so time to put you down.”

    Neos sneered at her. “Of course I knew your purpose. I was simply surprised that you managed to be mildly effective. No matter, your sword won't protect you from the power I wield now.”

    He was gathering some array of spells, many more than he'd done previously, and Snowball held her sword warily as she approached. There was no doubt he'd gained a lot of power from draining some poor bastard, because last she'd seen the man wasn't strong enough to make even half so many spells at once. The sword could only block so much, and the water shield was far from impenetrable. It wouldn't take much getting through to kill her, if he was clever about it. She would need some help, and the only help available... Snowball looked back over her shoulder to the trio slowly pulling away. “If you fools want revenge for your dead friend, come help me kill this bastard. Running won't solve anything.”

    She didn't wait to see if they heeded her call. She charged straight for Neos, and as the hail of spells came she flailed wildly with her sword to destroy as many of them as she could. The water shield popped up again and stopped many that made it through, but a few got past it and slammed home. They were not particularly powerful, but she could feel heat and coldness from them, and one she was sure was a nasty one that simply rotted her flesh where it struck. That was bad, and it hurt like hell, but Snowball kept charging forward. Some of the water from Necropolis' shield shot for the wounds and began healing them. This was the true nature of their combined defense: prevent as much as possible from hitting her, and heal the damage from the remnants. Healing was Necropolis' true strength, and the pain faded well before Neos launched another volley of spells. That didn't give Snowball a ton of hope though: the bastard had been clever enough to realized the weakness of her sword was defending against many small spells, and she didn't expect him to take long to turn his attention to killing Necropolis instead of dealing with her defenses.

    As Snowball neared Neos, a barrage of golden streaks struck the mage from the side. She needed only a quick glance to see the Kitsune on his feet, rage on his face, and a veritable forest of bows floating in the air above his head. The attack was enough to strain Neos' hastily reconstructed defenses and to distract him a bit from his offensive plans. He tried to pull himself back away from her again before she could strike, but she lunged and got about an inch of her sword into his gut before he pulled back out of reach. That was bad. She'd been hoping to wound him badly there and ideally go in for the finish on the next attack. Now her only hope was that he was dumber that he seemed and wouldn't think to take out her support before she had another few tries to slice him up. A new barrage of spells streaked her way, and she braced herself to defend once more.

    Kitti pushed herself up with shaking arms. Her ears were ringing, but she could hear shouting and some other noises. She would've sworn two people ran past her a little while ago, but it was all so hazy and she couldn't be sure she wasn't just imagining it. This was definitely not how she'd planned for things to go. It hadn't taken any real effort to figure out that Kimberlyn was supposed to be some kind of weapon, and she'd done a damned good job dealing with the god who was causing all the trouble. Kitti herself had been getting slapped around, but she'd figured once the god was dealt with then the Dracari girl would come help her out... but then everything went white and she'd woken up who knew how long later lying on the stone of the street, and there were toppled trees blocking her view into the park.

    The only person she could see from her wobbly stance on hands and knees was Titana. She looked terrible, covered in dirt and scratches with one arm of her shirt torn to ribbons. Kitti figured she couldn't look much better. The traitorous bitch was crawling forward slowly with her eyes intent on something laying on the ground, a white stick of some kind. The only sense Kitti could make of it was that Titana wanted to use it as a weapon to finish the job, but if she got it instead, then maybe that would even the odds. She tentatively shifted one hand forward, then a knee, then paused. She remained more or less upright, so she moved the other limbs. It worked well enough, and she got a nice pace worked up. In truth she knew she was only inching forward with each motion, but it looked like that would be enough: the stick was closer to her, and Titana was even slower than she was. The race for the weapon on the ground was a classic staple of stories, but Kitti was pretty sure this was the slowest such race there had ever been.

    Finally, after a couple minutes of slow crawling, Kitti grabbed the strange stick and held it up at the ready to bash Titana once she got close enough. However, the other woman froze rather than continuing forward. That was a good sign, at least. As Kitti watched the woman, she could feel the white stick growing oddly warm in her hand.

    “Put it down, you fool.” Titana's croaked words had a strange edge to them. Nervousness? Fear? Kitti wasn't sure, but she knew it meant something.

    “Why?” She waved the thing menacingly in Titana's direction. “Afraid I'll crack your skull with it?”

    “No, you dunce, I need-” Titana cut herself off, and the continued with a cautiously questioning tone. “What happened to Jacob?”

    Kitti sneered at her. Just the thought of the man made violent urges rise up inside her and make her wish she could have handled the bastard herself. “He burned. The same fire that cooked your boss.”

    A rasping sound came from Titana, and it took Kitti a few seconds to realize it was laughter. “Good. I hated that little parasite. Guess I don't need the protection any more.” Titana started crawling forward again, apparently no longer deterred by the threat of the stick held aloft.

    It took Kitti a few seconds to put two and two together in her head, which still felt like it was stuffed full of cotton. The white stick must have fallen from Titana's pocket or something when they got thrown out onto the street, and it had been intended to protect her from Jacob. Knowing Titana's ruthlessness, that protection probably wouldn't be the passive shielding sort. This had to be a weapon. She pushed herself up to hold her weight on just her knees and held the stick up to examine it closely in the dimming light of the evening. There were still shouts and strange sounds coming from the park, but Kitti didn't let that distract her. The stick was a simple length of white, only maybe six inches long, with only one irregularity: a little indentation near the center of it.

    Titana's voice startled her out of her examination, coming from much closer than it had before. “You'll kill yourself if you play with that. You have no idea what you're doing, you simpleton.” The grinning woman was pushing herself up to her feet as she spoke. “Never did understand why Peregrine kept you around. Maybe you were lovers, like that paper said. That'd explain why she had such a fucking useless assistant trailing after her all the time.” Titana was on her feet now, and she reached for the dagger hanging from her belt, apparently ready to be done with the fight. “She's probably getting lonely in death. I'll send you to meet her.”

    Kitti remained on her knees as Titana took a couple wobbling steps forward. She sighed and shook her head. “We were friends, not lovers. She did show me a thing or two, though.” She held the white rod up, pointed at Titana. That was enough to halt the woman for a second, but then she kept staggering forward. “I never did have any talent for magic, but figuring out magitech was always easy once she taught me how it worked. Getting killed by a simpleton will be horribly shameful for you, I'm sure.” Kitti pressed her thumb into the indent and felt it heat up immediately, but nothing happened. This was a fancier sort of magitech that required more than simply pressing the right button to work, but it wasn't hard at all to figure that out either. Some people got simple words or images keyed into the magitech, things that had to be thought for the magic to activate, but it could never be anything complicated. Kitti tried a few ideas before something else bubbled up of its own volition and caused the weapon to heat up further in her grip. She looked up to Titana, now only a few steps away with the dagger raised and rage contorting her face, and gave the woman a less than friendly smile. “Have fun with Jacob in whatever dark pit your kind goes to when you die.”

    Before Titana could respond, Kitti focused on a simple thought: the desire to kill. The rod vibrated in her hand for a brief moment, then a blast of blindingly bright white light shot forth and slammed into Titana's chest. In the span of a few heartbeats the woman was reduced to a loose scattering of ash on the ground, leaving behind only the dagger and a few stray scraps of cloth as proof that a person had once stood there. The rod grew cold in Kitti's hand, likely needing time to recharge its energy stores for whatever that magic had been. It wasn't anything she had ever seen before, but it was damned effective, clearly. She wondered how well it would work on a god. There would hopefully be time to test that out later, because she was still too damned weak and battered to try it out. She pushed herself back off of her knees and sat on the stone of the street, just taking a few minutes to rest before trying to get up and figure out what in the world had happened in the park.

    Pahn'kaks remained invisible to all but the Lady of Chaos as the fight continued. She'd probably be chastised later for not helping, but then direct combat had never really been her forte. The Lady was indisposed at the moment anyway, gone into some kind of hibernating state to fight off whatever the Dracari girl had done to her, so there was time yet before she would be called to account. Perhaps that meant there was still time to do something that mattered before she was slain for insubordination. She vaguely toyed with the idea of ripping Titana's heart out, but before she'd settled on it she saw the bright flash from where the woman had been blown away by Neos' entrance, and it didn't take much effort to sense that Kitti was the survivor of that conflict.

    Neos himself clearly needed no aid. The attackers were fairly clever, and what they lacked in cleverness they seemed to be making up for in tenacity and rage, but it wouldn't be enough. Every time the small one with the magic-nullifying sword got close enough to try for a fatal blow, Neos pulled back just in time. He was toying with them, clearly. She could sense that he was holding back and missing some of his attacks on purpose. The Kitsune with the summoned bows had miraculously been barely touched by the mage's attacks, but many of them had exploded in the man's near vicinity to make him jump. Pahn'kaks could see clearly that the moment he decided to get serious, Neos would wipe out everyone but the sword wielder in an instant and then bombard her from all sides with attacks she could not hope to defend against. That was a shame. He had always been a cocky and arrogant little shit, seeing himself as equal to Immortals just because he'd figured out some trick to quickly steal another mortal's life force and use it as power. It was a stupidly simply trick, and Pahn'kaks could have used it herself if it wasn't such a disgusting and abominable use of magic, but he acted like he was some kind of superior being for using it. Perhaps bringing him down to earth would be a suitable last act before dying.

    Pahn'kaks looked down to her captive and shook her head in disappointment. The Kitsune man had sent a few summoned creatures to free Rhea, but they were inadequate little beasts. The ropes were almost chewed through enough to break, but the strange snake with a bit of metal on its tail was failing to pick the lock on the arm restraints. It was trying valiantly, flailing and twisting to try to get its tail to twist the lock open, but it was clearly far too simpleminded to pick a sophisticated lock... though who else would ever be able to tell? She was the only one who could see the snake failing to do its job, but what if it was suddenly successful instead? She could see Rhea was conscious and watching the fight through a cracked eye, but she was wisely remaining still and keeping her breathing even to give the illusion of sleep. Pahn'kaks made a quick motion with one finger and the lock clicked and turned. The poor little snake's metal tail tip was snapped off in the process, but it flopped to the ground and slithered away seeming unharmed. Rhea was up on her feet and surrounded in protective magic in a matter of seconds. She checked around, obviously looking for her jailer, but upon seeing nobody nearby she rushed off to help the fight against Neos.

    Pahn'kaks chuckled under her breath and continued to watch. This would at least make things entertaining, she hoped.

    Rhea moved toward the ongoing battle, but she had to go much more slowly than she would prefer. Her limbs were still numb from the bindings she'd been stuck in, especially her arms, but she would just have to work through it. She made a mental note to thank Crystal for sending those little animals to free her, though that of course would have to wait. She'd been watching the battle as best she could, and that came first. It hadn't taken her long to see how poorly the fight was going for those arrayed against Neos, though luckily it had been similarly very easy to see where to intervene to turn things in their favor. She still wasn't sure exactly why two of Lord Maldov's henchmen were fighting against man's pet evil mage, but questions could wait along with gratitude until the battle was won.

    As soon as she got close enough to attack, Rhea sent forth half a dozen invisible rods of energy to slam into Neos' shields. They were enough to startle him and grab his attention for a brief moment, thanks to the stealthy nature of her magic making it hard for even another mage to detect, but it wasn't enough to do anything to his defenses. She could see the moment he dismissed her, just like he was dismissing Crystal's barrage of arrows and the little red blasts from something Neb was holding that looked like a hastily cobbled together magitech weapon. Good. She wanted to be seen as no threat. To keep up the act of uselessness, she kept on firing off more and more ineffectual attacks, waiting for her moment to truly strike.

    Lady Snowball cut her way through another set of spells,and she dashed forward to try to get another cut in on Neos. That was the perfect time: Rhea formed a curved wall of invisible energy around Neos, just outside his shield. When he tried to pull himself away, his shield slammed into it and held him in place. She could just see the panic in his eyes as Snowball rushed forward and started chopping at his legs and stomach. With his shields chopped to ribbons he was able to pull away again, but he struck Rhea's wall and Snowball kept on coming for him. Just as he tried to lift himself into the air, she closed it off into almost a dome and he slammed into that too. Neos battered the invisible wall with his own power and it shattered after a few seconds, but as he pulled himself away through the air he left a thick trail of blood on the ground below.

    “You cunt.” Neos spit the epithet at Rhea, clearly having put two and two together. He landed near the charred but still upright form of the Lady of Chaos and immediately started healing himself. The wounds closed rather quickly, but she could see the halo of power around him diminishing rapidly as he did so. Clearly healing was not something he was well versed in and he was relying up brute force to get the job done. “I guess it's my fault for having a little fun. No matter, I'll just grab a little more power and be done with you quickly.” By the time he finished speaking he was healed completely, with only skin showing through the cuts in his clothing rather than bloody wounds. He was far enough away from the attackers now that he would be able to launch an attack before Snowball could get to him again...

    But Neos didn't attack them. Instead he reached out and grabbed the throat of the burned figure beside him. Rhea ran forward, hoping to be able to push him away before he could drain the god of its power, but she slowed as she saw the burned figure's eyes pop open. They were disturbing, full of fear and moving skittishly as if seeking escape, but there was a definite sense of clear focus on the man now standing frozen with his had on the god's throat. The voice that filled the air did not come from the body itself, instead seeming to come from all around the park at once. It was a low but still clearly feminine voice, one that might have been pleasant and soothing were it not filled with disgust and anger.

    “You arrogant little swine. You think your little power is enough to steal from a god? I knew mortals weren't worth an iota of trust, but you're managed to surprise me with out monumentally foolish your kind can be. Here, let me show you true power.” Neos seemed unable to move, and Rhea could only faintly hear some kind of croak coming from him that was probably his attempt to speak. It did him no good. His body started to shrink and wither, just as the Dracari girl had done. Apparently the Lady of Chaos saw fit to impose poetic justice as punishment. Rhea had no problem with that at all, but the crippled god getting an infusion of power was probably not a good thing.

    As Neos was being slowly drained of his life, the god's eyes settled and focused. They were still full of fear, but rather than darting around at random they went from Rhea to Snowball to Crystal and back again. The mouth moved and out came a raspy voice nothing like the god's, not even when it had been using the same mouth to speak. “Help me. It's controlling me. It killed so many people. I saw it happen, like I was doing it. H—“

    The face froze for a few seconds. Once Neos' ruined body fell to the ground, the eyes resumed their creepily frantic movement. When the burned thing spoke again, the voice was once again smoothly confident. “Odd, I thought he was too weak to take control even while I was distracted. No matter.” The god closed her stolen eyes for a moment, and when they opened they were still and lacking in any recognizable human emotion. “And now he's gone. It was fun while it lasted.” Those inhuman eyes settled with staring at nothing, and by all normal senses the Lady of Chaos seemed to have forgotten those still arrayed around her.

    To the more magically attuned senses, this was far from the truth. The little magical barbs still clinging to the burned form were slowly being worked loose, one at a time, and under the charred exterior the body was undergoing a regenerative process. Lady Snowball was the first to reach the god, but she didn't immediately attack recklessly. Instead she carefully stabbed the burned figure, testing the effect of her anti-magic blade. The healing process was slightly disrupted by its presence, but the barbs and the efforts to loosen them were completely unaffected. That was apparently good enough for the Felis woman to start attacking wildly. The other three seemed less sure of the matter, so Rhea looked to the ragtag little group with all the stern command she could muster.

    “The fight isn't over just because Kimberlyn was avenged. This thing is going to slaughter us all and bring the city to ruin if it gets free of what your friend did. Don't let her efforts be in vain. Kill the monster while it's still weak.” With that said, Rhea turned her attention back to the Lady of Chaos and started driving invisible spikes of power into the burned body. A few seconds later the hail of arrows resumed, this time aimed at the god and striking true rather than being deflected. The human woman wearing Gencha military gear stepped up beside Snowball and started hacking away with her mundane sword; it was only then that Rhea recognized Joan, but all the questions that sprung up would have to wait. Neb followed their lead and resumed firing his slapdash weapon at the still figure. Blasts of water came from afar as well, Necropolis' addition to the efforts. The god made no effort to avoid or repel their attacks, but it took far more punishment than any mortal could before dying, yet it remained upright and seemingly fine. Something about this situation was definitely wrong, and Rhea was worried it was going to cost them all their lives.

    The mortals were trying hard, but Pahn'kaks could see they would not succeed. They were only slowing down the inevitable, keeping the Lady of Chaos from focusing her full might on getting free of the Dracari girl's nasty trick by making her expend a lot of energy on healing the body, but it was only a matter of time before she knocked enough of those magical barbs loose to free enough of her power to be able to slay them all and finish the job without interruption. It could take hours though, and in that time likely many of the mortals in the city would recover from the haze of bloodlust that had taken them. More could come to the park, perhaps enough to truly destroy the Lady of Chaos' physical form and cast her into an incorporeal existence for a couple days.

    The god herself seemed to come to the same realization at the same time. Her eyes focused, turning to Pahn'kaks whilst ignoring her attackers, and spoke loud enough to be heard over the assault. “Well? What are you waiting for? Deal with these insects, you lazy shit.” Rhea turned round to look for the target of the words, and she had to be aware exactly who they were meant for, but the others simply glanced in the direction before continuing their attacks. None of the mortals could see her, but the Lady of Chaos continued to stare right at her, silently demanding obedience after voicing the order.

    Time seemed to stand still for Pahn'kaks as she considered the order. Something felt strange, somehow different than it had only moments ago before the god spoke. It was almost like... A wistful smile spread across her face as she realized it. The was the imminence, that sense of impending death, but rather than feeling like she was in the eye of a storm it now felt like the storm was bearing down on her. This was the moment she'd been waiting for. The timing was wrong, the circumstance was not at all like she'd expected, but she knew what had to happen. She knew how she wanted to die.

    As she stepped forward and out of her concealment, Pahn'kaks drew on her limited magical skills to create a whip, a dark coil of energy that crackled in her grip. Rhea called out the alarm, but before she could bring her magic round to bear on the new threat the whip cracked out and lashed across her face. The woman fell in a limp heap, able to move only very slowly and sluggishly thanks to the paralyzing magic of the whip. Next went the little Felis woman, struck before she could pull her magic-eating weapon out of the god's stolen body. Her lanky companion fell soon after, unable to get any sort of workable shield up in time. The Kitsune, dwarf, and human trio were no challenge at all, each falling to a quick lash of the whip. Within a mere minute after she appeared, all of the mortals were left defenseless on the ground. That was no fun at all, but she hadn't expected them to put up a real fight in the first place.

    “Good.” The Lady of Chaos spoke with no approval or affection, no praise for her success, just brusque tone that said the world was finally as it should be, as she had commanded it to be. “Now help me get free of this damned curse. Even you should be able to manage to deal with this petty nonsense.”

    “Of course.” Pahn'kaks stepped over the fallen bodies, now grinning widely. The god likely thought she was pleased with her work, or pleased with the backhanded compliment. She placed a hand on the god's chest, examining the barbs of magic up close for the first time. They were clever little things, piercing through physical reality to stab into the god's essence directly. Even though she was nowhere near as skilled with magic as those of her kin who had focused on it, it would indeed be a simple matter to pull the barbs out and free the Lady of Chaos... if that had been her intent, of course. Instead she leaned forward, still grinning, until her nose touched the charred stump of what had been the nose of the god's stolen body, looking into the inhuman eyes with her own silver eyes full of merciless glee.

    “I can deal with this petty nonsense, alright. All I wanted was a return to the old days, with gods who cared about me instead of ignoring me. Instead I got a few petty tyrants obsessed with revenge who only saw me as a tool.” The Lady of Chaos tried to talk, but Pahn'kaks slammed her fist up into the god's jaw and forced it shut, holding it in place as she continued. “I thought things couldn't get any worse, but here I am. I was able to have some fun now and then before I helped free you bastards, but I guess I'll just have to make up for it by dying doing what I loved. I'm so glad you took a human body. Human body, human weaknesses. I only wish I could stick around to hear you scream.”

    Pahn'kaks had always been somewhat of a pariah, if not outright reviled and outcast, for her sexual proclivities. Few were understanding of her love of inflicting and receiving pain, and those few who were tended to be quite ashamed of it. She was never great with magic compared to her peers, but she had gone out of her way to learn one particular trick that made it easy to sneak away with lovers for violent little trysts: the creation of special pockets of closed space, not quite part of the normal world but not quite separate from it either. It was much like the trick gods used to “disappear” from the mortal world at will, and normally she had fairly limited control over the newly created realm and how long it would last, unless she threw her all into it and left herself nearly exhausted to make it special. This time, however, she drew deeper than she ever had before, burning through her stores of magical energy and reaching further, digging through the barriers and painful warnings to grab her own life force. It burned hotter than simple magic, like molten metal compared to a candle flame, and using it felt like she was tearing herself limb from limb. Pain was an old and dear friend though, and she embraced it rather than trying to push it away.

    The pocket dimension took very vivid form in her mind, a large room filled with an astounding array of torture devices, along with a group of mindless servants to both operate the complex machinery and to make use of the simpler whips and knives and the like. The whole thing was made to grab onto the mortal mind and body and force it to experience horrible pain, but they would not die in that room, they would simply suffer until it faded from existence and spat them back out. The Lady of Chaos had been using magic to stop herself from feeling those mortal sensations, but in Pahn'kaks' special realm that would be impossible. While the torture chamber would continue to exist for weeks, it would not hold the god that long to escape. It would cost her her stolen body, and getting free from that whilst being tormented would likely take a couple days, but she would no doubt get free. That was good enough. All Pahn'kaks wanted was to force the god to feel a small measure of the betrayal and pain she felt. By the time the Lady of Chaos could work herself free, her spirit would be freed and beyond the reach of any revenge. It was not quite the grand and important act Pahn'kaks had hoped to do in her last moments, but it would send a strong message to the gods that no Immortal could be made a slave to their whims, and that was enough to satisfy her.

    The Lady of Chaos disappeared entirely, and Pahn'kaks hurriedly sank into a sitting position as bone-deep exhaustion hit her. As her vision slowly faded, she saw a woman hobbling into the ruined park. It was the human who had so boldly walked up to the god and declared her enmity. It was a shame that plan had been interrupted before the Lady of Chaos was killed, but trapping and punishing her was a decent consolation prize. The other mortals around Pahn'kaks started stirring as her life faded and she used her last bits of energy to free them of their paralysis. Her sacrifice had probably done nothing but earn the mortals of Gencha a few more days of life, but it was better than nothing and enough to let her die with a measure of happiness in her heart.

    As the dust settled and night began to fall over Gencha, Kitti sat beside Crystal on the ground with three bodies arrayed in front of them. Rhea had marched off soon after the battle was concluded to restore order to the city, taking Joan with her, and Neb had decided to tag along with them. Lady Snowball left after that, having finished with her apologies for being too late to stop Neos in the first place. That left only the two of them... and Necropolis, the strange man who had come with Snowball but chose to remain behind when she went off to report to Lord Maldov. He was kneeling on the ground examining the bodies, using magic to run thin sheets of water over them, and Kitti could only assume it was some sort of funerary rite.

    Though the extra company had been a bit awkward, Kitti and Crystal had talked things through and found a lot of answers. She'd explained to him how she pieced things together, how Kimberlyn's relayed story of her ancestor's creation in Jorick's breeding dungeon had clicked in her mind. At the end of his life as ruler of Gencha, Jorick had been utterly obsessed with the prophecy foretelling the return of the sealed gods, so what possible purpose could some strange dragon hybrid breeding program serve? The dragons who were captured for that use hadn't been open about their identities when freed, and history books and the like made the dungeon out to be just a manifestation of Jorick's personal perversion and how mad he'd grown with power. In truth it must have been an experiment to create living weapons, bloodlines of mortals who would be able to stand and fight against the gods when they returned. Crystal had revealed that his grandfather had been a Kitsune with patches of scales, which he'd kept hidden and refused to talk about, and from talks with Kimberlyn he knew both her parents were Dracari as well. Likely his grandfather and her longer-lived parents had both been products of that weapon breeding experiment. Crystals own apparent immunity to the power of a god had to be a byproduct of that, though his bloodline had been diluted and he probably lacked Kimberlyn's offensive abilities to take down a god.

    After the talk they'd settled into quiet mourning. Neos' death was unworthy of any mourning, so he was largely ignored. The Immortal had apparently saved them all, despite tormenting Rhea for most of the day, so they spared some attention for her. Most of their focus, however, was on Kimberlyn's desiccated corpse. Kitti hadn't known her for very long, but the Dracari girl had been brave. She'd come to confront a god on the confidence of Kitti's deductions about what she'd learned, and it had gotten her killed. The guilt had yet to properly process and settle in her mind. It wouldn't take long, she was sure, and she dreaded it. For the moment though she was able to focus on being a silent, comforting presence for Crystal. From the things he had said she knew he cared about Kimberlyn a lot. They'd sat in the dark and talked after the Lord of Destruction attacked, waiting for rescue from their cellar refuge, but this night he'd sounded quite different. He'd sounded.. hollow. In truth, that tugged at her heart more than the knowledge of Kimberlyn's death at the moment. Where personal guilt had yet to set in, empathy was doing a fine job filling in for the moment.

    “Why are you crying?”

    Kitti blinked and looked up, seeking the source of the voice. She touched her cheeked and found them just as dry as expected, so the words must have been meant for Crystal. He was staring at Necropolis. She could see damp spots in the Kitsune's fur under his eyes, which she hadn't noticed before looking for them. Just before she could ask a question, Necropolis spoke again, still not looking up from his work.

    “You shouldn't mourn. It's pointless.”

    “Pointless.” Crystal sounded as if he couldn't fathom the meaning of the word. “I should gut you, you know that? It's not pointless, it's—“

    “She is not gone. Not yet. Don't mourn those who still cling to life.” Necropolis was still magically running water over the bodies, now focused entirely on Neos' corpse. “Look closely. Not with your eyes, with your higher senses.”

    Kitti could see nothing at all, but after a short silence Crystal gasped. “I see.. light?”

    “Yes. That is the last of her spirit.” Necropolis moved his hands and the water split into two: a floating ball, and a stream that shoved its way unceremoniously into the corpse's mouth. “Neos was a monster, but his methods were... useful, in a way. He pulled out her spirit and burned through it like a log in a fire, but he did not burn it all. We mortals are resilient creatures. We can be called back from death so long as a bit of us remains behind. She will survive yet, assuming she has the will to step back away from the comforting embrace of death.” The stream of water burst back out of the corpse's mouth, and now even Kitti could see an unnatural glow to it.

    “You should have told us. I could have.. I don't know, helped somehow?” Crystal sounded torn between frustration and hope.

    Kitti laid a hand on his shoulder. “Let the man do his work in peace. I'm sure this is a delicate process.”

    “Lady Kitti is right.” The title came as a shock to her, like an unexpected chill breeze in the middle of summer, but Necropolis went on without giving her a chance to interject. “I have been silent because I was focusing on stabilizing the remainders of her life force within Neos' corpse. My apologies, but it was necessary. And, speaking of necessity.” For the first time, Necropolis looked up at them. “Life can only be bought with life. I will need to make a sacrifice of sorts, but—” Kitti and Crystal both tried to object at once, but the odd man smiled and shushed them. “Only the evil and the ignorant think in such black and white terms. We mortals are arrogant to think ourselves above all other forms of life. Just wait and watch.”

    They did as they were bid, and Necropolis focused on his work once more. He guided the glowing water over to Kimberlyn's body and spread it out to cover her from head to toe. It seeped in slowly, and the shriveled body expanded into something closer to a living person's form. Once he was apparently satisfied with that, Necropolis closed his eyes and held his hands outstretched to his side, palms to the sky. Drops of water formed around his hands immediately, then slowly grew until Kitti was sure they would drip off, but instead they kept on expanding. Soon his hands were covered in spherical globs of water. Crystal nudged her and pointed to the side and she saw immediately what he was indicating. The grass was slowly dying in an expanding circle, and as she watched she saw one of the fallen trees get touched by that border and rapidly begin to dry out. It was almost like what Neos had done to Kimberlyn, but instead of the unnatural shriveling it was more like time had sped up and taken these plants in the natural cycle of life and death.

    When she looked back, the balls of water had grown almost to the point of touching Necropolis' torso, and now it was all glowing with a faintly green light. It went on for only a little longer before he started guiding the water down to Kimberlyn's body. This time the stream entered her mouth, and as it disappeared inside her the horrible withering was slowly reversed. Once all the water was gone, more than it seemed a mortal body could possibly hold, she looked almost alive again. She was still and lifeless, but otherwise she looked as if she'd just drifted off to a peaceful sleep rather than a gruesome death. Necropolis placed his hands on her temples and opened his eyes, looking directly to Crystal. He said nothing, but some kind of communication passed silently between them.

    Crystal pushed himself forward and took one of Kimberlyn's hands, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. Kitti didn't need to be told to understand what was happening. Necropolis had said she'd live only if she could pull away from the comfort of death, and how better to make that happen than to have someone close to her call her back? Kitti sat back and watched, and out of the corner of her eye she spotted a flash of green. She looked over to see a dragon flying quite poorly, wobbling in the air due to tattered wings, but rather than crashing into the ground it shifted its form in the blink of an eye and instead stumbled to the ground in a humanoid form. He looked just as battered in that form as he had in the dragon form, but he walked more steadily than he flew, even with one leg looking broken just below the knee and one arm hanging limply at his side. Kitti knew that had to be Gryal, the dragon who'd taken Kimberlyn under his wing. He hobbled over to Kimberlyn's other side and collapsed into a sitting position. Crystal and Necropolis both looked rather alarmed, but Kitti waved at them and shook her head, letting them know it was fine. The dragon was supposed to have some connection with Kimberlyn, so she figured his presence could only help.

    Crystal and Necropolis settled back into the positions they'd been in before, and the park grew quiet. The only sound was the air rustling the dead plants and the faint noise of Crystal's whispered words. Kitti sat and watched and hoped for the best. She even toyed with prayer a bit. She'd never been a believer before, but now that she was pretty sure gods were real she figured it was worth a shot. It was a vague and halfhearted thing, directed to any god who happened to be listening, but it was all she could really offer to the effort. Minutes passed, stretching into an age of quiet anticipation. Kitti wasn't sure how long it went on, but eventually Necropolis pulled his hands away and rested them in his lap. Gryal gave no reaction, but Crystal looked up and started asking worried questions, the same questions that ran through Kitti's mind the moment she saw the healer stop. Was it too late? Was she truly dead despite all that effort? Is there anything more to be done? Maybe get another healer to help? More friends to call her back?

    Necropolis simply held up a hand and waited for silence. He spoke in a weary and emotionless voice. “I will require someone to see me safely to Lord Maldov's headquarters on the east side of the city. I am very tired.” His eyes slipped closed and his chin drooped until it was resting against his chest. It was clear he was asleep where he sat. Crystal reached out like he wanted to shake the man for answers, but he froze before his hand had moved a few inches.

    A gurgling breath came from the once-dead woman, followed by a spluttering cough. Water spewed out of Kimberlyn's mouth. She coughed a couple more times, then her eyes popped open. She kicked and scrambled with her arms to get up into a seated position, staring around at them all with eyes wide as saucers. “I was...” Her voice was rough and raspy, and she shook her head rather than continuing the thought.

    “Not anymore. You're fine.” Crystal's voice, by contrast, was thick with emotion. He pulled her into a fierce hug and Kitti could see fresh tears in his eyes, this time happy tears. Gryal looked rather pleased as well, though he was more reserved about it.

    Tiredness hit Kitti like a sack of bricks. She was happy as well, and relieved that things had worked out for everyone who deserved it, but right now what she needed more than anything was a bed. Rhea had said something about more threats to come, another god, the Lady of Monsters, but that was a worry for tomorrow. Darkness had given way to the light of hope. Gencha still stood after two attacks by vengeful gods, and Kitti found herself resolved to lead it into the future. She'd never wanted to lead, but someone needed to do it and she now felt ready for it. She would make sure Gencha survived, no matter what the gods threw at them, no matter the cost.
    • Love Love x 8
  13. Chapter 8 - Terrors and Treasures

    Umi stood just above the high tide line, watching the last bits of the night fading before the coming day. She'd spent the day and a half or so after the clan folk left doing nothing of much use. Rory had taken his leave the previous night, off to search for his savior, and she'd found herself inexplicably free from things that needed doing. For most of her life she'd always been pursuing one goal or another, working on this project or that, never finding more than an hour here or there to kick back and relax. Everything was set in motion and she could do little more than wait to see how events unfolded. Setting the clans on their way had been one of the final steps, and she could sense that they were already at their destination. Well, not exactly the destination they had in mind, but rather the one Umi had deceived them into pursuing.

    Her time of relaxation and waiting were only slightly marred by the feeling of impending death looming over her. The imminence was supposed to be some kind of dreadful and dreary thing, but she found it somewhat comforting. One way or another, Umi knew this grand scheme would be her final one, and then she would go to whatever awaited an Immortal after death. She'd always known that agreeing to help Jorick with his plans to fight off the sealed gods' return would end in her death, of course, but the exact nature of it had always been a lingering mystery. Would one of the gods catch her and slay her? Would one of their servants do the job instead? She was leaning toward the latter, and had a particular servant in mind even, but only time would tell. Rather than dwelling on it, she'd used her free time in the shadow of death to clean up her little hut and put everything in order. Whoever came by after her death would find wooden boxes full of her mundane belongings, ready to be taken by whoever wished to have them. The books and other goodies, however, were hidden in such a way that only someone skilled enough to put them to good use would be able to find them. She suspected Kaga might be able to do it in a year or two if she practiced well. The girl would make for an interesting successor to the Witch of the Water, if she had the will to pursue that path, of course.

    With her mind in such a morbid place, Umi was wholly unsurprised when all the white sand around her lit up of its own volition into a nearly blinding glow. The sound of rattling chains filled the air, followed quickly by a warbling, inhuman screech. She turned round to find a mass of black mist being wrapped in glowing white chains that were formed from the sand itself. As the chains proved less than useful for containing mist, the sand adapted without direction to instead form a semi-translucent dome around the entity. Once it was contained, the magic imbuing the sand turned toward weakening its prisoner, sending sharp lances through the dome to stab into the mist. It was not as effective as it might have been on a physical body, but it was enough to keep the mist shrieking and pressing up against the dome in futile search of escape.

    “Lord of Destruction.” Umi walked up to the dome and mentally commanded the defensive spells to hold off on the stabbing for now. “I wasn't expecting you yet. Normally I'm more hospitable to guests, but the ones who come to kill me tend to find less than warm welcomes.”

    The noise from the black mist turned into a grumbling roar for a moment, then finally shaped itself into words. “What is this trickery? What have you done to me?”

    “Not enjoying the accommodations? Such a shame, I worked so hard on them.” Umi patted the glowing dome, careful not to let her fingers slip through it into reach of the god within. “I learned quite a few things in researching ways to fight gods. Truth be told I wasn't sure they would work, but here we are. Have you encountered any of the earlier tests? I helped Jorick crossbreed dragon magic with some nasty little tricks to hurt gods, and there should still be a few descendants of that experiment roaming around. This sand is quite a bit nastier. I wonder how long you'll last before you're weakened enough to be forced from your physical form.”

    “This petty foolishness will not save you, Witch of the Water.” She could practically hear the venom dripping from the Lord of Destruction's words, and it brought a pleased smile to her face. “You will not live to see the end of this world.”

    “Aye, and I'll greet death with open arms. Can you say the same?” Umi glanced off toward the ocean and nodded to herself as she felt the faint rumblings she'd been waiting for. “Well, enjoy the torture. I've got to go make sure one of your toys gets broken before you can play with it.” She gestured to the glowing dome and the stabbing started up again immediately, as did the pained screeches. Before the Lord of Destruction had any chance to respond, she focused on a distant tugging sensation that had been present in her mind for the past two days and disappeared from the beach instantly.

    Ozzie sat at the prow of the airship with the old book he'd gotten from Umi laid open in his lap. They were flying low over the water, only a few feet above it, rather than soaring up high as airships normally did when traveling over the sea. He had assured Grumpy that the precaution wasn't necessary, and so far he'd used his power to negate every null storm they encountered before it was able to make the lead ship dip far enough to touch the water, but it seemed nothing would remove the eternal distrust some of his people had for him. He'd even gone through the effort of making sure everyone heard him say 'survive' so as to be immune to his powers, which included shouting it loud enough for folks on the other five ships to hear it one by one as they flew close, with a few demonstrations to show that it was no trick, but that seemed only to keep the hostile bunch subdued enough to not be open with their hate. That was better than having to constantly worry about someone murdering him in his sleep, or taking a shot with an arrow from a long distance, but the enmity was still there beneath the surface. The majority of the clan folk had settled on indifference toward him after hearing his side of the story from long ago, but Grumpy and his cronies seemed like they would never be convinced he was not a menace.

    That might have driven him to despair previously, but Ozzie found himself merely irritated at the stubbornness of the clan folk. For most of his life he'd felt like everything was out of his control, like the power he'd been born with dictated everything and he had little to no say in the matter. Now that he had a book that was essentially a guide on how to use or, more importantly, not use this ability, everything seemed a lot less bleak. He had a clear path forward that didn't include worrying about accidentally killing anyone he cared about, and that was a huge weight lifted from his shoulders. Despite the majority of the clan folk being horribly stubborn, he'd managed to make a couple friends of sorts. He hadn't set out to make friends really, but Elle Joyner had become one early on and Kaga had been oddly friendly with him since Fury died. He'd expected her to hate him for being one of the causes of Fury's death, but instead she acted like nothing bad had happened and had come to chatter at him a few times since they'd left the witch's beach behind. It was strange, and the paranoid part of his mind was quite sure she was just plotting to get close to him to kill him, but in truth he couldn't see her harboring any real malice toward anyone. Whatever the reasons, having a couple friendly faces among the crowd made it a lot easier to deal with the suspicion and spite.

    His musings were interrupted by the front of the ship tilting downward ever so slightly. Ozzie leaned to the side to glance over the edge and saw that the glow from the crystal embedded into the prow of the ship was slowly fading. They'd flown into yet another null storm, it seemed. They'd been growing more and more common as the day went on, though he figured that was simply because they were in the middle of the Crown of the Gods. He called out the word 'satiate' and felt the air around him grow thick for a moment, then the odd sensation faded away entirely as the airship floated back into a level position. He'd read up on the word in the book and had come to the conclusion that the null storms were something like magical parasites, some kind of amorphous beings that were like fleas that drank magic instead of blood. Apparently the word derived from an old term meaning 'to fill with power,' and the only thing Ozzie could think of to explain why the null storms would go away upon use of that word was that they were, well, satiated by being instantly filled with the power they devoured. He suspected that a powerful magic user could negate the null storms just by hurling raw energy into them, and he was tempted to get Kaga to test it out. He also had a thought that saying 'satiate' would refill a mage's energy instantly, which he could potentially test at the same time. Next time she came over to chat he'd have to propose the idea. This was probably the first time he was actually excited to test out his powers, and it was a very strange feeling indeed.

    Something off in the distance caught his eye. It was small and on the surface of the water. A boat, perhaps? It would have to be a small one, and Ozzie wasn't sure if that sort of boat was actually suitable for being out in the middle of the sea. He watched it as the airship drew nearer, and after a few minutes the shape resolved into something very different indeed: it looked like someone riding a horse... on top of the water... and headed straight for them. There was no telling what in the world that meant, but his natural pessimism was pretty damned sure it was nothing good. He tucked his book into a satchel hanging from his shoulder, then turned to shout a warning to the others on the boat, but as he did the little bell at the top of the mast began ringing as a signal from the lookout posted in the crow's nest that something had been spotted. The man up there leaned over the side of the little platform and yelled the details down to the crew, and soon enough everyone was crowding up around the front of the boat to see the strange spectacle.

    As the rider approached, the water started bulging up unnaturally beneath the horse's hooves, and as it stayed atop the water it rose to be level with the deck of the lead airship. Details came into focus and the already strange sight was made stranger still. The horse was dark as a moonless night, its hooves seemed to be turned backwards but did not give the beast any trouble in walking, and rather than normal hair it appeared to have a mane of seaweed. The rider was a woman, tall and broad of shoulder, and she was wearing an assortment of furs. The curved wood of an unstrung bow was visible over one shoulder, and a wooden handle that probably belonged to another weapon poked over the other. What caught Ozzie's eyes most prominently though were the rider's own eyes: they were silver, an Immortal's eyes, and they practically burned with anger.

    “What have you fools done?” Though the rider was still a few hundred feet away when she spoke, her words boomed across the open space and hit the people on the airship like a slap in the face. “The Deep One awakens, and you imbeciles are flying right over its prison. How do your ships fly after experiencing its hunger?”

    Ozzie felt a hand clamp around the back of his neck. He didn't need to hear the voice that came with it, yelling a response to the rider, to know it was Grumpy. “This one here, he learned some trick from a witch to make the null storms go away. If you've got a problem with that, he's the one to answer for it.”

    The rider's approach halted when she was about fifty feet away, though the water under her mount's hooves curled backwards into a wave to keep her moving apace with the airships. Ozzie could see something of the rider's expression twitching and changing, but at this distance he couldn't be sure if it was rage or amusement or something else entirely. Her words simply sounded resigned. “A witch. Only one witch would have done this, the meddling bitch.” A tense silence hung between the sole rider and the group on the airship for a long minute, ending finally with a heavy sigh. “Make room, and ready yourselves for a fight. I suspect most of you will die today.” The wave under the strange horse reversed course and propelled it and its rider toward the ship.

    The crowd of people scattered to avoid getting hit by the growing wave or the horse it carried. Ozzie would have sworn he heard a disappointed sigh from Grumpy before the large man let him go and backed away himself. He called for the clan folk to ready their weapons, and Ozzie hurried back toward the hatch leading to the lower decks of the ship to get out of the way. He didn't actually run and hide, he just claimed a spot just beside the hatch to watch whatever insanity was unfolding before him. The clan warriors managed to array themselves in a rough half circle, bristling with iron and steel weaponry, by the time the rider's wave washed over the prow of the ship and deposited her horse onto the deck. Tense silence descended once more as the clan folk waited for her to make her move, at which point they would likely attempt to swarm her.

    This time Ozzie could see the Immortal's expression quite clearly. Her furrowed brow twitched up into incredulity, then full on amusement as she looked at the fighters facing her. “You truly are ignorant then, hm? I'm not the one you need to prepare to fight. The Deep One will be surfacing soon. Swords and axes won't do you much good though. If you get close enough to use them then you're a dead man walking.” Some of the warriors started shouting questions, but she ignored them in favor of turning her gaze on Ozzie. She tapped one heel to the strange horse's flank, and he could see now that she was barefoot, guiding her mount forward through the crowd and forcing them to part so she could come forth to loom over Ozzie and stare down at him. “What did the Witch of the Water tell you? Why did she send you this way?”

    Ozzie tried to act like he wasn't intimidated, but he was pretty sure he wasn't fooling anyone. He'd seen what Umi could do, and he had no doubts that this Immortal would be able to do equally terrifying things if roused to anger. “She didn't tell me much. She just said that we had to head for some mountain, because that's where we'll find the way to defeat the evil gods. She told me how to make the null storms go away, just by using my power and saying 'satiate' and—” He cut himself off as he saw the woman stiffen up as he said the word. “Uh, are you alright?”

    “I thought there was something odd about you.” The Immortal murmured the words, as if she was speaking a thought aloud rather than intending to say it to Ozzie. She shook her head and gave him a look that made him feel like a misbehaving child. “I'm sure she had her reasons, but Umi's reasons are rarely good ones, in my experience. You've woken a monster from ancient times, one of the last creations of the Lord of Destruction before he was sealed away. We did what we could to seal the Deep One as well, but you've given it enough energy to break the shackles. What you call null storms were its attempt to absorb magic to attain enough power to free itself. Your little trick was essentially feeding those receptacles as much energy as they could hold. You have a sliver of the power of gods at your disposal. You should be more careful about how you use it.”

    Some part of Ozzie wanted to cringe and apologize, but he fought it off and settled for defiance instead. “I didn't even know what my power even was until the day before yesterday. How was I supposed to know the freaky powerful witch was sending me off to wake a monster? It's her fault, not mine, so go yell at her.”

    The Immortal stared at him in silence for a few seconds, then nodded sharply. “You've got a spine. Good. Of course it's Umi's fault, but keep the precaution in mind nevertheless. Now if you know how to use that ability of yours, grant me and Apple protection from it so you can be of use rather than a hindrance in the battle to come.”

    Ozzie was confused for a moment, but then he realized Apple had to be her weird horse. “Alright. Survive.” He felt the familiar rush of power through him as he said the word, and the Immortal nodded almost immediately. She went to turn away, but he held up a hand to catch her attention. “Who are you anyway? The witch said nothing of another Immortal, and we're out in the middle of the sea. What were you even doing out here?”

    “I was watching over the prison of the Deep One. It has been my sole duty for many years, and now it seems the day has come to slay the beast or be slain in the attempt. It will be a welcome change either way.” The look of calm confidence on her face made Ozzie quite sure that death would not find her unwilling to go, and the thought sent a shiver down his spine. “I am known as the Tamer of Beasts. Last I walked among mortals, I was given the name Rissa. You may use whichever you like, if we survive the battle.” Rissa turned her mount round and headed back toward the front of the boat, pulling her bow from her back and readying it as she did so; he could see now that the wooden stick that showed over her shoulder from the front had not in fact been a weapon, but rather the handle of a short fishing pole that had no line attached to it so far as he could see. It looked like she was prepared for surviving in the wilderness, but he had his doubts that such tools would be of use against an entity known as the Deep One. That was the sort of title granted to terrible monstrosities, not things that would be bothered by a few arrows.

    Footsteps echoing up from the hatch caught Ozzie's attention. He peered down into the dim interior to find Elle Joyner and Kaga coming up, with the Neko girl in the lead and pulling the older woman by the hand. As they emerged into the light, he nodded to the pair of them and gestured toward the fighters rushing around on the deck, the men shouting to the other airships in their little fleet, and the Immortal now posted up at the prow. “The witch tricked us. Getting rid of the null storms woke up some kind of monster, and now we're all probably going to die.” His voice only shook a little as he said it. He was worried and afraid, but he was managing to keep it under control for the most part, which was a new and somewhat exciting turn of events for him.

    Kaga stared up at him for a moment, face scrunched up in an almost comical exaggeration of a thoughtful expression with her ears twitching this way and that. Finally she nodded once, sharply. “That sounds like the sort of thing Umi would do. Probably the monster needs to die or else the bad gods will win. We'll be fine, she wouldn't send us here if she didn't think we could kill the thing. I can feel it coming up, it's almost here.” Kaga let go of Elle's hand and ran off to the right hand side of the airship, looking over the railing down to the sea.

    “She has an... oddly high opinion of the witch.” Ozzie looked to Elle, frowning slightly. “I wouldn't put it past her to send us on a suicide mission.”

    “Nor would I.” Elle glanced over toward Kaga and her own hint of a frown turned upward into a pleasant smile. “But that girl is a fantastic judge of character, I think, and definitely better than me. I always thought Fury was bloodlust incarnate, but Kaga saw something more in there, and she was right. Here's hoping she's right this time.” Elle patted him on the shoulder and made to head over to join Kaga. Ozzie figured she should be down below rather than out here when the fighting started, but he knew that the suggestion would not be taken kindly so he said nothing and let her do as she pleased.

    Soon thereafter, Kaga pointed down to the water and started shouting about being able to see something. Ozzie headed over to the railing, as did many of the warriors, and he quickly spotted what she had seen. It was still deep beneath the water, just a dark blob, but it was growing larger quickly. He looked over and saw that Rissa had her eyes on it as well, though she remained at the front of the airship regardless. Grumpy started shouting to the crew to get the airship out of the way, and he called out the same orders to the others. They lifted away from the surface of the water in short order, but it wasn't quick enough to get completely out of the way.

    The surface of the water lifted in a huge dome as the creature pushed toward the air, and if they'd been on traditional ships on the surface then they surely would have been flipped over by it. Instead the ship Ozzie was on was simply drenched with a spray of salty water. All he could see before he had to shield his eyes was what looked like a small mountain adorned with spikes breaching the surface of the water. He heard screams and a crunching noise as he wiped his eyes clear, and once he'd blinked most of the salt free he saw more or less the same as before, a spiky mountain, but now it had a visible head down the surface of the water. It looked a lot like a dragon's head, or at least like the illustrations of dragons Ozzie had seen in some books, and its massive mouth was closing over an airship that had been too slow to lift off into the air. The creature was large enough that it could have easily fit another two or three ships into its mouth without trouble.

    Some of the clan folk were already throwing spears and shooting arrows at the behemoth, but Ozzie looked over to see Rissa just waiting there with her bow held loosely in one hand with no arrows in sight. All the arrows and spears were bouncing off the creature without having any effect, so he supposed the Immortal sitting there doing nothing made sense. As the thing finished rising to the surface, Ozzie finally understood what he was seeing. It was a turtle, an unbelievably massive turtle, with a dragon-like head and a shell that looked like the landscape of a nightmare. There was more to it than just being massive though, there had to be for it to be dangerous enough to imprison it on the bottom of the ocean rather than just kill it outright. From what he'd seen of Umi's abilities, he was pretty damned sure that it wouldn't take more than a handful of Immortals to kill a giant dragon-turtle-thing.

    That confusion was laid to rest in short order. Screams from off to the side drew Ozzie's attention, and he looked over in time to see one of the five remaining airships plummeting down toward the water. He saw the crystals on the bottom were totally dead, not a bit of light emanating from them at all, and it immediately clicked in his mind: those null storms were made by the creature, so of course it would be able to control them at close range to nullify magic in an area. Another airship was hit by same power and started falling, just as the first one struck the water at an awkward angle and immediately started to tip over. Grumpy must have seen it as well, as he called out for the ships to descend to avoid the same fate. Even that seemed a poor decision: the fallen ship was out of reach of the monster's jaws, but it was assaulted all the same. Dozens of the spikes on its shell shot out, attached to fleshy pink tentacles, and lashed out at the foundering ship. It was reduced to scrap wood in mere moments.

    Ozzie did the only thing he could think to try to salvage the horrible situation. He sucked in a deep breath and shouted out a word that he hoped would work on the creature: “Die!” Tendrils of grey quickly swept up those tentacles, and the beast itself made a noise that sounded to him like a muffled screech amplified a few hundred times, but after a moment the color began to slowly recede. The thing was not immune to his power, but it had some resistance. There was nothing for it but to try harder. “Die, die, die!” The grey color returned, and it grew darker with each shout, but once he stopped it faded even faster than before. Ozzie kept on shouting, hoping that sheer volume of attempts would overwhelm whatever resistance the Deep One had, but after a little while the greyness stopped advancing entirely, then it receded even as he kept yelling the word. He stopped only when he heard the clop of hooves on wood behind him.

    “You aren't powerful enough to command the Deep One's death.” Rissa sounded amused at the very notion. “The Lord of Destruction himself commanded it to live, and that power still compels it. It's why we could not kill it. You'll have to be more subtle than that if you hope to live.” Ozzie did not bother looking back to the Immortal, and clearly she did not expect a reply since she steered her odd horse away and back to the prow immediately.

    The other ships were falling from the sky one by one, and it would be their turn soon enough. Ozzie felt a familiar sense of despair welling up, but he fought it off as best he could. They would be knocked out of the sky soon, but they weren't dead yet. The second ship to be knocked down to the water was managing to fight off the tentacles with some success; apparently the fleshy tentacles were not so resilient to attacks as the shell and head were, and that gave them enough room to do some damage and make the Deep One retract its attacks for short periods of time. Ozzie heard a buzzing noise coming from the side and looked over to see Kaga holding out her hands, leaning forward over the railing with Elle Joyner keeping one hand on her shoulder to keep her steady, and there was a yellow light slowly building in front of her fingers. It was some kind of magic, obviously, but not any kind he'd ever seen before; it looked oddly like a blooming flower, with tiny triangular bits unfolding and spreading out from the base point until it built into an erratic pyramid shape, then continued spreading out further into a chaotic mass. As he watched he felt a strange tugging sensation in his gut, and his nose was filled with the scent of dirt after the first rain after a long summer, just like the smell of the drink Umi had forced on him; it lasted for only a few seconds, and it was damned confusing, but he had other concerns to worry about and turned his attention to the strange magic once more. After a few more seconds, with Kaga's face screwed up in intense concentration with her tongue sticking out one side of her mouth, the small formation of light burst forth almost instantly into a blazing column, at least two feet wide, that streaked down to the creature and struck it in the shell, just above the head. It was impressive, but Ozzie doubted its effectiveness... until the beast roared and its spike-capped tentacles flailed wildly for a couple seconds.

    Once his vision fully returned after the blinding display, Ozzie could see a dark hole where the magic had struck the shell, and a dark fluid was slowly oozing forth. Blood, perhaps? Kaga was cheering and yelling something about being the best sorceress ever, and Elle had to fight to keep her from tipping over the edge of the boat, but the celebration was short-lived. The Deep One's attention had been drawn to them it seemed, and where before it had been going down the line and knocking the first four ships out of the sky in a predictable order, it now skipped the second to last of them and focused its magic nullifying powers on theirs. Before Ozzie could think to shout 'satiate' to stop it, the airship was already crashing down into the water. The salty spray stung his eyes, but he was still able to see the creature slowly turning its head toward them. One massive flipper breached the surface as it maneuvered to turn round and came crashing down on another ship that had landed safely in the water, crushing it and pulling it down into the depths in mere moments.

    Now that the ship was floating in the water, Rissa apparently felt it was time to act. A bolt of red light flew out and pierced one of the Deep One's tentacles, then exploded and left a bloody stump behind. Ozzie looked over and saw that she was pulling her bowstring back with no arrow nocked, but as she did so a red light formed where an arrow should have been. That seemed to just piss the creature off rather than do major damage, and most of the tentacles swarmed their way, leaving only a few assaulting the other waterbound airship. The clan warriors followed the example of their fellows and started aiming their attacks at the vulnerable tentacles, and those in the one airship remaining aloft did the same. However, even as some of the appendages fell to both the mundane and magical attacks, more spikes from the shell burst forth and proved to be more of the same. If every single spike on the thing was attached to a tentacle they would surely run out of arrows long before they were all dealt with.

    Ozzie figured there was only one real hope for victory here, but they likely needed some time to see it done. He cried out “halt” and was pleased to see all the waggling tentacles freeze in place for a couple seconds. That would have to be good enough for what he hoped to do. Kaga was still celebrating her own little victory, and it took her a moment to stop and come back down to earth when Ozzie laid a hand on her shoulder and put on a serious look, despite being quite amused at her enthusiasm. “Can you do that again?” He gestured to the wound in the giant turtle with his other hand for emphasis. “We're never going to stop it with arrows. You're our only hope, Kaga.”

    Elle Joyner frowned at him over the girl's head, but there was a hint of levity in her voice. “If we get out of this alive, I'm blaming you if she ends up with an ego the size of that turtle.” Ozzie just rolled his eyes and looked down to Kaga to see how she took the news.

    Quite well, as it turned out. Her hands were already up again, and the same yellow light was blooming in the air before her. “I can do it maybe two more times. Maybe just once. I'm not good at this kind of magic yet. I bet Umi could do it hundreds and thousands of times before she got tired.” Kaga fell silent and her gaze drifted away from her magic and toward the Deep One. The delicate formation of yellow light shivered for a moment and made a sound like shards of glass rattling against one another. Her eyes grew wide and she focused on her work once more and resumed talking, and Ozzie figured it was her way of keeping concentrated on the task at hand. “Most people do magic by making the whole spell themselves, but Umi said that's wasteful and exhausting. She said magic is like people. They can both think for themselves, but they also both like patterns and following a leader. So all you have to do is build the pattern and repeat it a lot to show the magic what to do, then tell it to do the rest. That's how she did the magic sand, she just cast the spell on a hundred grains one at a time and then the pattern took over and finished the job for her. Before she taught me this I could only make one little lightning bolt before getting tired, but now...”

    Just as before, the building magic expanded rapidly and raced toward the Deep One as a blazing column of light. This time the creature was more prepared for it and got a mass of its spiked tentacles in the way, but they didn't seem to do much at all to blunt the force of the magic. The tentacles and bits of shell in the path of the column of lightning were vaporized in an instant, and another hole oozing dark liquid appeared in the shell, this time much higher up above the head. The creature roared in pain again and continued turning about to face their airship.

    Kaga was breathing heavily now, but she was already lifting her arms to try again. Elle offered her a water skin, but the girl shook her head. Ozzie pointed to the Deep One's head, now almost turned to face them. “You've to to hit it in the face. Maybe aim to blast a hole in its brain. You're hurting it, but those are like needle pricks to something so huge, so you have to take it out with this last shot.”

    The Neko girl sighed and squinted her eyes to focus on forming another blast. “I can't concentrate and aim at the same time. You guys aim for me.” She stood up straight rather than slouching on the railing, and put her arms out directly in front of her. “Don't move my arms though, you'll mess me up. Just grab me by the shoulders and turn and tilt me in the right direction.” Kaga closed her eyes tight, apparently finding that a better way to concentrate than staring down the maw of the beast.

    It was a damned strange arrangement, but Ozzie took her left shoulder and Elle grabbed the right one. They had to tilt her back and hold her upright between them, but they got what seemed like a good angle. Ozzie started shouting “halt” repeatedly now, and the beast remained frozen in place for a long while before it could fight off his power, though it was still being slowed at least. It was unclear if that would be enough time though: the light formation was building up more slowly than before, and the Deep one was already opening its large mouth and readying to lunge forward to devour their ship. The thing's mouth stayed open for a long time, much longer than it ought to have taken to bite them, and that realization made Ozzie take a closer look. He could see down the massive creature's throat, and what should have been darkness was instead filling with light that was fairly similar to that building in Kaga's hands. Even worse, he saw now that her spell was dimming and shivering, on the brink of falling apart. It took him a second to realize what the crafty monster was doing: the girl's magic was being drained by a null storm even as the Deep One built up its own blast. There was only one thing Ozzie new to do, so he did it even though he knew it was probably a bad idea: “Release, satiate!”

    Both of the building spells expanded drastically and fired forth at once. Kaga's was much larger than either of the first two attempts, fueled by his word of power rather than just her own reserves of energy. Unfortunately the power had also given the Deep One another boost of power through the null storm, and its own magic met Kaga's in the air between them before it could pierce through the top of its mouth and blast into its brain. The collision of opposing energies sent a blast of air outward that rocked the airship and almost sent the trio falling onto the deck. Before they had much time to recover, the Deep One was already lunging forward to follow up its failed magical attack with something more mundane. The huge head with its hooked beak of a mouth was already closing in on the boat as they regained their footing, and by then it was far too late for any of them to do anything about it.

    The behemoth's mouth closed over the side of the ship, and the three standing near the railing were yanked out of the way at the last moment. Ozzie looked around in surprise and saw a glowing red line wrapped around the three of them, and by craning his head back he could see Rissa reeling them in with her fishing pole. The creature's bite had gone a bit short, only making it to about the middle of the deck, that that was plenty enough to set the ship on an inevitable course for sinking. The clan warriors, however, were apparently not inclined to simply go down with it. Ozzie watched in horror as Grumpy tossed aside the spear he'd been wielding and drew his sword, then charged right for the Deep One's face. His angry yell was quite clear over the sound of screams and crunching wood: “Get off my ship, you cunt!” As he neared the beast he leapt up and grabbed on to the uneven surface of the flesh, climbing up toward its eye. The other warriors on the ship let out a ragged cheer and followed suit. As the Deep One withdrew and let the rest of the airship start to sink into the sea, its face was adorned with a few dozen warriors clinging gamely to it, some trying to stab it right there but others climbing for more vulnerable targets. The spike-ended tentacles pulled back and started stabbing gently at the unwanted passengers, slowly enough that the Deep One was clearly wary of stabbing itself in the face, and thus slowly enough that the more spry warriors could clamber out of the way. It would have been a comical sight if not for the death that accompanied it.

    Rissa finished pulling the three of them to her and promptly guided her horse to leap over the railing of the ship, which was already heavily tilting to the other side, but the steep angle seemed to cause it no trouble at all. They landed on the surface of the water and stayed there as if it was solid rock. Rissa dismounted and stood on the surface as well, though there was red light emanating from her feet to give evidence to the magical nature of the feat, whereas her mount seemed to be able to do it without such a trick. She hauled Ozzie, Elle Joyner, and Kaga up onto the creature's back and made sure they were more or less steady on it before she dismissed the magic string from her fishing pole that had held them together.

    “Oh wow that's so cool, how are you doing that?” Kaga, sitting in the front, was leaning to the side and staring at Rissa's feet. “Are you changing the surface of the water into something else? Do you have crystals in your feet like airships do?”

    The Immortal gave the Neko girl a confused look. “That would be needlessly complicated. It's just simple magic pushing upward to counter my weight.” She shook her head and glanced back toward the Deep One. “Those little blasts aren't going to cut it. Try for something bigger. Much bigger. I shall distract it.” Rissa took a couple steps away, then turned back and glared at her mount. “Apple, no tricks or nonsense. Carry them true and I'll return your bridle. Fail me and I'll keep it forever.” Apple made a noise that sounded like a sigh, far too human-like for a horse type creature, and bobbed its head downward once. That apparently satisfied Rissa, so she turned away and ran off along the surface of the water, drawing her bow once more and hurriedly getting back to firing red bolts of energy at the Deep One.

    Kaga was apparently examining the horse's seaweed mane with great interest. Ozzie reached forward and tapped her on the shoulder. “So, can you do it? Make something like the same magic, but a lot bigger?”

    The girl sighed and nodded, turning to look at the giant beast that was still fighting off the people climbing its head. “Won't work though. It was hard to gather all the energy for the ones I was doing, so something bigger would be way too hard, and even if I could it'd notice what I'm trying and stop me with its null thingies.”

    “Well then,” Elle spoke up from behind Ozzie, “it's a good thing you're not working alone. Didn't you notice what Ozzie's little trick did for your spell? He should be able to help you with a bigger one, too.”

    “Oh, yeah!” Kaga turned round to peer at Ozzie over her shoulder. “That's a neat trick. You yelled a lot at the monster, so maybe if you do the same thing for me it'll be enough.” Her face scrunched up into an annoyed grimace. “But it'll help the monster too, and then we're ruined.”

    “Maybe not.” Ozzie cupped his hands around Kaga's ear and whispered quietly to her. “Think it'll be able to hear this?”

    Her scowl immediately melted into a grin. “Nope! I barely heard it. This might work! We should—“ Kaga's eyes grew wide and a loud screech came from the Deep One, loud enough to make their ears ring. “Uh, we should hurry maybe?”

    Ozzie looked to see what had caught her attention and flinched at the sight. It seemed that one of the warriors, and it looked like Hastur from a distance, had gotten up to the monster's eye and stabbed it repeatedly. Milky white fluid was seeping from the wound, and the spiked end of a tentacle had been viciously stabbed through the attacker with less regard for the creature's own personal safety than it had been displaying before. The tentacles were now more vigorously attacking the climbers, and they were being picked off quickly. Rissa was running around on the water trying to defend the climbers by shooting the attacking limbs, but she was quickly assaulted by many herself and had to focus on her own survival. Soon they'd all be dead, so there was nothing for it but to rush through with the plan. Ozzie drummed his feet against the odd horse's sides. “Apple, go, run around to the wounded eye's side!” Apple let out a sound that could only be read as an irritated sigh, but he got moving regardless. “Kaga, get started!”

    He saw the the glow of her magic starting to form out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't look away from the carnage. The ship they'd been rescued from was sinking under the water, but the other that had been in the water was now lifting off to join the unharmed airship, though the respite from attack that was letting them back away from the monster surely would not last long. The warriors who had jumped into the Deep One's head were being absolutely slaughtered. As he watched, he saw Grumpy make it atop the huge head and stand fighting off two of the tentacles with his sword in one hand and its worn leather sheathe in the other. It was a valiant effort, but a third spiked tentacle lashed out and stabbed through his gut. He hacked at the offending limb clean through with two strikes, leaving himself standing on wobbly feet, but he only lasted a few seconds more before another spike caught him in the chest and put an end to his struggles. Ozzie could only see a few more managing to cling to life on the beast's bloodied head, but they were all being swarmed by more and more attacking tentacles as their fellows died. Many of them snaked out to assault Rissa more intensely as well, leaving her without time to shoot any more bolts of magic in the midst of running and dodging for her life, though she was very intentionally working her way around the beast in the opposite direction that Apple was taking the trio on the horse.

    Through the combination of Hastur damaging its eye and the distractions caused by the others, it seemed the Deep one was not aware of them at all. Even so, Ozzie tore his eyes away from the massacre and cupped his hands around Kaga's ear just as he had before, and started repeatedly whispering “satiate” to her. The building spell jumped dramatically in size each time he said the word, and that growing energy seemed to finally be enough to get its attention. He saw the light of Kaga's spell dim for just a moment, but the null storm's effects only slightly slowed its progress as Ozzie provided her with limitless fuel. Another light from the opposite direction caught his own attention, and he could see the Deep One's mouth filling with a familiar light. It burst forth as a beam of energy almost instantly, but the monster could not turn its head far enough to hit them with it. Rather than being just one blast of power, it pulsed repeatedly in time with Ozzie's whispered word of power. Clearly the whispering didn't matter at all and he was empowering the Deep One as well, so he pulled back and started speaking the word aloud.

    The nearly constant beam of light from the monster's mouth was growing closer and closer as it used its massive flippers to turn in the water, outpacing Apple's speed by a fair margin. Kaga's previous attacks had been complete when the mass of yellow light was about the size of a man's head, but now she was directing something closer to the size of the Deep One's head and it was still not firing yet. There was nothing to do but to keep on saying the word as quickly as possible and hope that Kaga's work finished before the oncoming magic roasted them all. It closed to about a hundred feet away, then took a handful of seconds to half the distance. Apple veered hard to the left, taking them in closer to the monster to gain some distance from the beam that was chasing them. It bought them maybe a few seconds, but even so the Deep One's turning was too fast for the strange horse. The pursuing magic filled Ozzie's entire field of vision when he glanced back, and he would swear he could feel it vibrating the air all around him. It was bearing down on them far too quickly. He was just about to stop speaking, hoping that would be enough to save them even if it meant they would have to start all over again with their own attack, but the light cut off all on its own. He was horribly confused for a moment, but then realized that there was still a bright light suffusing the area and he knew that Kaga's spell must have finished with only a few moments to spare.

    He turned to see a vast column of yellow light extending from her hands, just about as large as the Deep One's attack had been. He could not see where it was striking because it was wide enough to block his view, but Apple was still running as it continued unabated for what felt like a minute or more. When the light finally faded Ozzie had to blink and rub his eyes to see properly again, and a beautiful sight awaited him. The Deep One had been nearly cut in half as Kaga's magic tore through it and Apple continued to run around it. It was unmoving and sinking now, and he could see straight through to the other side in a few places along the length of the wound, whereas other portions were blocked by charred bone and bloody viscera that had fallen from above to fill the new gaps. Deep in the disgusting depths of the creature he could see something giving off a purple glow, though with all the gore in the way he couldn't catch a glimpse of the source before the wound slipped down below the water and took the strange light out of sight.

    Rissa walked toward the trio on the horse as the monster continued to sink, and he noticed she was now dripping wet for some reason. Kaga was watching with her mouth hanging open, and neither she nor Elle had said a thing. Ozzie was the first to break the silence. “Gods, I can't believe we're still alive. That might be the dumbest thing I've ever done.”

    “Bravery and stupidity are often two sides of the same coin.” Elle patted him on the shoulder. “We're alive though, and everyone on those two airships are alive because of what you two did. It was foolish, but sometimes foolishness is necessary.”

    Ozzie nodded and gave a little her a little chuckle, though it was a bit forced. He was still winding down from the adrenaline and fear, but he was sure he'd find it amusing later. Kaga was still staring and silent. He gave her a little nudge to get her attention. “Hey, are you okay? You're usually less quiet and still.”

    “Just thinking.” She help up her hands and looked at them with a frown on her face. “I wonder if we could kill a god with that trick.”

    “Don't be an idiot.” Rissa's words were harsh, but she looked quite pleased as she walked along the surface of the water to stand next to them. “That thing was huge, but a god could have killed it with barely any effort. Your magic could destroy a god's physical form if it wasn't ready to defend itself, sure, but it would be like ripping off their clothing without scratching the true form underneath. It takes the power of a god to slay a god.”

    “Oh.” Kaga let her hands drop down to rest in her lap and gave Rissa a thoughtful look. “But that would have killed an Immortal for sure.”

    “Most of us, yes.” The Immortal gestured to herself, apparently to indicate the fact that she was soaked and still had water dripping from her hair. “I had to dive in to avoid your magic as it carved through the Deep One. The Witch of the Water could probably block it, and perhaps a few others if they still live. But in a true fight you would never be given the chance to build up an attack for so long. If you have some notion of Immortal hunting in your mind, work on your speed first or you won't even present a challenge.” She said it as if it was of no concern to her and was simply giving useful advice, which made for a nice dose of creepiness to cap off an already fucked up day, as far as Ozzie was concerned.

    One of the airships was settling down in the water a short distance away, and the other set down in the water off in the distance to collect survivors from the wrecked ships that hadn't yet drowned. Rissa guided them to the near ship, the one that had been barely scratched and remained in the air the whole time, and used her water manipulation trick to give them a ramp of sorts to step over the rails. The clan folk on the deck stayed back and gave them plenty of room. They were staring with wide and frightened eyes, but for once he was pretty sure they weren't directed at him. Kaga seemed oblivious to it all and was making little sparks of light appear around her fingers and float around them in circles. Ozzie hoped that their fear for her power would grow into the respectful kind rather than the loathing kind that he'd experienced, but there was no point worrying about it now. The three on the horse dismounted with help from Rissa, and Elle Joyner muttered something about her hips and went to go sit on a nearby large coil of rope.

    There was an extended moment of tension and silence (which, again, Kaga seemed not to notice) on the deck of the ship. The clan folk were staring and waiting for something, Ozzie wasn't sure what, and he was waiting for someone else to break the tension first. That tension breaking came from an unexpected source: Apple turned round to nudge Rissa with his head, then stamped one of his backward front hooves and made a rather impatient sounding snort. All eyes turned to the strange beast.

    “Yes, fine, a promise is a promise.” Rissa reached into her still-wet fur clothing and pulled forth what looked to be a slender silver chain. She draped it over Apple's neck, and withing the blink of an eye the horse creature changed entirely... into what looked to be a human male with long, dark hair that had pieces of seaweed stuck in it, wearing ragged trousers made of some kind of sea plant matter woven together. That started the gathered clan folk chattering, with a few yelling “monster” and “witchcraft,” but they generally seemed more surprised than fearful. Ozzie understood that well enough himself. Kaga just glanced at Apple's new form, nodded, and went back to whatever she was doing with her spinning lights.

    Elle Joyner was the first to speak over the rabble. “What, have you all forgotten the tales you were told as a child? He's a kelpie. Potentially dangerous now that he's got his bridle back, but only if you're a fool. Don't go accepting any rides from horses with backwards hooves and you'll be fine.” That quieted some of the yelling, but it didn't stop the people from staring at Apple like he might attack them at any moment. Ozzie remembered something about tales of kelpies taking children into lakes and rivers and sometimes the sea to devour them, so he supposed there was some reason for the fear. Mostly he was just pleased to see someone other than himself or Kaga become the new target for suspicion and fear.

    Apple gave Elle a sour look and shook his head. “I won't go hurting nobody. I'm not a monster.” He cast that same look around at the gathered people, then sighed and stalked away toward the front of the ship muttering under his breath. Rissa laughed, which Ozzie noticed made the kelpie's shoulders tense up instantly, and headed in the opposite direction, off toward the hatch down into the ship. Apparently she planned to stay with them for the time being, though he figured she'd be off on her own again once they reached land. Kaga noticed the Immortal walking away and hurried after her, yelling something about speed and waving her little magic lights around.

    The deck quieted down after that and the tension returned. Some folks were talking amongst themselves, others were looking at Ozzie with fear or some strange expectant look he couldn't quite place, but they where all standing around and waiting. He could see the other airship had finished gathering survivors and was now floating a stone's throw away, and there were a bunch of people standing by the railing on the near side and watching what was going on. The quiet waiting irritated Ozzie. They needed to get going, to keep on with their journey to the mountain and whatever was there that would supposedly help defeat the dark gods, and the fact that they'd lost so many people didn't change that at all. The thought gave him a little queasy twinge in his stomach, but he pushed it away to deal with it later because there was no time for mourning the dead. Why didn't anyone else seem to understand that? He glanced over to Elle and found her watching him as well, with a little smile on her face. He gave her a questioning look and she simply arched a brow at him, still smiling. It took him a couple seconds of confused staring, but he got it: it was her way of silently asking “well, what are you waiting for?”

    Ozzie turned to look at the gathered people and clapped his hands together once, loudly, and spoke up loud enough for it to carry to the other airship. “Alright, we need to keep moving. We can arrange something tonight to mourn the dead, but we can't waste time just sitting here or their lives will have been lost in vain. The sooner we reach our destination, the sooner we can deal with the dark gods and make sure nobody else ever has to face a monster like the one we just killed.” He was not at all certain of his proclamations, but they sounded like the right thing to say: a little sympathy, a little reassurance, and a statement of purpose to get them all moving.

    Slowly but surely, the people did get moving. The crowd dispersed and soon enough the airship was rising out of the water and turning west once more. Ozzie remained where he was, standing and watching with more than a little surprise as the people actually followed his half-assed orders. He suspected that they wouldn't follow his orders for very long, that soon they would pick their own leaders to replace the void left by Grumpy's death, but for now this was enough. All that mattered for now was dealing with this prophecy and dark gods business... and getting some rest. Ozzie was exhausted just from the strain of fear and all the tension, and he could really do with a nap. He headed down into the belly of the ship, making sure to renew the protection from his power to Elle and Kaga on the way, and fell asleep mere seconds after flopping down on one of the rope hammocks down in the dark depths of the ship.

    As the airships flew away, Umi let her cloaking magic fade away and shapeshifted into a dolphin to dive after the sinking corpse of the Deep One. She'd watched the whole thing from afar and was irritated by what she'd seen. After using the concoction she'd force on Ozzie as a beacon for teleportation, a tricky business that often ended in a mage being unable to reassemble their body at the destination if they weren't smart enough to set up a beacon to act as a focus for their arrival point, she had kept herself cloaked from their senses and jumped into the water. The fools would have died without doing any real damage if the Tamer of Beasts hadn't intervened, and even then they still would have died without her help. As the Deep One turned to fry them with the ridiculously oversized beam of energy from its mouth, Umi had worked to thicken the water and make it turn in counterpoint to the way the creature wanted to go, just enough to buy them the last seconds they needed rather than making a show of it and holding the thing in place. She'd hoped the idiots would be able to get the job done themselves after she'd handed them all the pieces, but clearly she had overestimated them by expecting that they would be able to put them together in a reasonable amount of time.

    Umi made it to the carcass and forced her way into the wound in its side, then used a bit of magic to force guts out of the way and push herself along. The one good thing she could say about the excessive way Kaga and Ozzie had dispatched the monster was that it provided a fine opening for what she needed to do. Something smaller aimed at the head would have gotten the job done, but trying to tear it in half had clearly been effective. Of course, if left alone it would regenerate in a few weeks time, but that was part of the reason she was there in the first place. She kept on forcing her way through the gore, seeking out the source of the purple light that shone through the gaps in the mess.

    Eventually she made it to roughly the center of the beast's corpse, about where its heart would have been before it got vaporized. A large purple gem, easily twice the diameter of a human's head, was resting amidst the muck and emitting a strong glow. This was the true heart of the Deep One, a nugget of the Lord of Destruction's own power made manifest and embedded into the creature to protect it from harm. The Immortals who long ago fought the Deep One after the destructive goes were sealed away had in fact killed the creature once, but it had returned to life soon thereafter. It seemed that the Tamer of Beasts had not figured out the secret of it, but Umi could not truly fault her for that. It had taken her many years of hunting down dragons and other favored monsters made by the Lord of Destruction before she discovered some with similar regenerative stones within them, and she hadn't been sure of their function until she watched a mangled dragon's corpse reassemble itself into a living being over the course of a week from the power of a fist-sized gem. This gem was probably powerful enough that it would take mere minutes to revive a dragon. Even now she could see tendrils of flesh being pulled toward it and starting to reconstruct the muscle of the Deep One's heart.

    Umi created a sphere of whirling blades, made from the water itself, and enclosed the gem inside of it to cut away all the flesh trying to connect to it. Once it was free, she kept it in the containing magic and pulled it along behind her as she swam back out of the still-sinking behemoth. She glanced back as she broke free and saw strings of gore extending from the wound and trying to not avail to reach the gem, only getting chopped to bits for all the effort. Umi swam back up to the surface of the ocean and transformed back into her favorite form, that of the old crone, as she breached into the salty air. She used the same trick as the Tamer of Beasts to balance on top of the water, and only then did she let the gem free of the slicing protection to drop into her hands. It was nowhere near as heavy in her hands as a normal gem of such size would be, yet to her magic-attuned senses it felt like she was holding a mountain. The gem of power had been made by the Lord of Destruction near the peak of his strength, before most gods were killed and all of those remaining were weakened by it. It was probably powerful enough to kill a god, if used properly, but she has other plans for it that would hopefully put an end to all of them.

    Umi focused on a distant sensation pulling at her, much like she'd focused on Ozzie before. Her special sand had many uses, and acting as a focus for teleportation was perhaps the most convenient. She closed her eyes for just a moment and opened them to see white sand stretching out before her, and in the middle of it all a familiar dome. The shrieking had stopped, but she could feel the Lord of Destruction still being pummeled within, much weaker now than he had been before. She supposed he'd realized there was no escape and was working with the prison to break free of his physical form as soon as possible. Long ago, before the death of so many gods had weakened the others, they were able to act upon the physical world at will without needing to take a form. Umi was glad that was a fact of the distant past, else the Lord of Destruction would have been able to waltz through her defenses and kill her without a struggle. She could sense him focusing on the gem in her hands, and almost immediately she felt a little strand of energy seeping out from it.

    “Interesting.” Umi made a new shell of her own energy around the gem, holding its power inside and preventing it from aiding its master. “You made the gem itself capable of some sort of thought, didn't you? It's too bad I don't have time to study it. I just wanted you to know your own creation will be part of what defeats you. Enjoy your prison.” The Lord of Destruction just growled at her, not bothering to from words, but that was enough to satisfy her as she headed into her hut.

    The pillar in the corner was just as she had left it, covered over by a protective dome. The white stone cylinder with gold veins had a seal drawn in gods' blood atop it, and on the points of the star rested four of the five components for the ritual, each covered with its own little protective dome: essence of magic, a crystal formed of her own power over the course of years; bounty of nature, a fist-sized pearl retrieved from a clam that could have held two grown men in its mouth; flesh of ancients, her own severed finger; and heart of hero, the heart ripped from Fury's chest at the end of their fight. Umi dismissed the shield and approached the altar. The gem was quite large, almost as wide across as the pillar itself, but the other items were small enough to not get in the way. She carefully lowered it down onto the final point of the star and intoned the name of the final offering. “Might of monster.” The ritual tried to form a shielding dome around the gem, like it had to protect the other items, but it adapted quickly and formed around the outside of it in instead.

    Umi stood and stared at the almost-completed ritual for a few minutes. It had taken a lot of effort to figure out what sort of items would be needed to violate one of the fundamental laws of existence. All ritual magic required great sacrifice, but it also required a specific balance of power to see its aims met. The greatest power on the altar was the might of monster, for the ritual aimed to achieve a truly monstrous goal. The essence of magic was quite powerful as well, needed purely as fuel to tear through the barriers that were in place to prevent anyone doing exactly what she was doing. The bounty of nature was an apologetic sacrifice, to give something in an attempt to balance what she was doing. The heart of hero was nothing special, just a token to symbolize the heroic intent of the act. The flesh of ancients was a pittance that meant almost nothing, meant to show that Immortals themselves meant nothing in the long run and thus could be subjected to the potential horrors of the ritual without any guilt or remorse. It needed just one last thing to be truly finished: something to guide the ritual, something with enough force of will to make the laws of nature bend and break before the ritual's power. There was of course only one thing that would work.

    Umi placed her hand down in the center of the altar, in the open middle area of the star drawn in the blood of gods. “Mind of maker.” She could feel little barbs of magic stabbing into her body, far more painful than she'd expected, but she did falter or make any noise of discomfort. “I sacrifice myself, of my own will, to guide this ritual to completion. Blood of gods, take my will as your will, take my life as your life, and take my power as your power.” The hooks dug in deeper, piercing beyond flesh and into her mind and spirit. On and on it went for what felt like ages, then it stopped in an instant. She pulled her hand away and watched as the components of the ritual were slowly absorbed into the white pillar, including the blood seal itself, leaving a pristine white and gold-veined surface behind. Once it had all disappeared she felt it pulling at her as well, tugging with far more insistence than a beacon for teleportation would have done. It stopped short of ripping the life out of her. That was expected, but Umi was still relieved all the same. She'd never used her life as the binding power for something like this, so she hadn't been perfectly certain it would work as described in various ancient texts. The ritual had a hold of her now, and her death would be the final key for its activation.

    Luckily, she knew she would not have to wait long. That sense of imminent death still loomed over her, almost feeling like a close friend at this point. She would die soon, and then she would get to experience becoming one with magic itself. That was an exciting thought indeed. Very few people had ever had such an experience, and of course none had lived to tell about it, so she could only speculate as to what it would be like. Umi busied herself with making a fresh pot of tea as she thought it over, just to give herself something to do while waiting for her killer to arrive.

    The trek up the mountain had been quicker than expected and almost entirely uneventful. Most of the refugees of Eles had stayed down near the bottom, in a clearing that they'd found shortly into the hike upward. Allie had almost chosen to stay with them, with her children, but something had compelled her to keep moving, like someone was gently pushing her when she tried to stop moving. She'd noticed some of the others seem to experience the same thing. The most obvious had been Rook: he had slowed and looked toward the little creek passing through the clearing, as if he dearly wanted to stop and drink or just use the chill mountain water to cool himself down, but instead he followed after Raven with heavy and slow footsteps before picking up the pace. She chalked it up to a mixed sense of duty and desire to find some purpose now that their home had been destroyed. Her children had remained behind with the bulk of the villagers to rest and hopefully sleep after the long walk to the mountain.

    That had been hours ago, and now they were high enough up that the air felt thin. Allie was regretting not fighting harder against that urge to join the trek to the top. After fleeing the dead things that had ravaged Eles, all she wanted was to sleep for about a year, but instead here she was climbing a mountain and listening to Tari pressing Raven for more information. It had been going on for most of the climb, and the Lizardwoman was finally getting the strange fellow to do more than just confirm facts she already knew. The recent line of questions had started with their purpose on this mountain, which Raven remained unwilling to talk about in detail, but they'd wound around to the importance of the mountain itself.

    Raven sighed and flapped a hand at Tari to forestall her barrage of questions and speculations. “No, this is not the mountain from the legend of the Hallowed Beasts, which are just a myth anyways as far as I know, nor is it the where the Lord of Destruction made his monsters. If you must know, the Immortals call this mountain Soulathel, which in your words would be—“

    “Mother Mountain.” Tari's eyes were positively gleaming with excitement, which Allie could see only because she was walking just behind the two of them. “I've seen the name in my research. Then is it true that this is where the Immortals were first created?”

    Raven was silent for a few seconds. Allie wasn't sure if he was annoyed that Tari knew so much, or if he was being cautious about something. “Yes, so I was told. They were made here but wandered far before settling to establish their great city, which rested near the center of what was a single continent in their time. Its destruction resulted in the Crown of the Gods being formed as the ocean water swept in to fill the hole left behind.”

    Tari nodded and muttered something about wishing she'd brought a notebook. “Then what of Norlathel? Father Mountain, right? I'd never understood what a 'Gate of Father Mountain' could be, but that was part of one of Jorick's titles. Is Father Mountain a real mountain as well? Is that where the malevolent gods were sealed away? Is it of any importance to this prophecy or is it no longer relevant?”

    From the tensing of his shoulders and the look of discomfort Allie caught on the side of Raven's face, she suspected this was exactly the subject he wanted to avoid. The poor man should have known better than to hope for a scholarly type to not ask irritating questions. It reminded her a little of the way her husband would purposely ask her irritating and pointless questions, just to take her attention off of stressful things. She could feel more tears welling up in her eyes as the pleasant memory was overshadowed with the knowledge that he was dead, that he would never again ask her about the morals of sheep or what she thought would happen if the sun turned blue or any other silly thing. Moody, walking beside her, apparently noticed her distress and took her by the arm, elbows linked together, but said nothing. It was not the first time on their trek that Allie had been assaulted by emotion like this, and Moody had quietly helped her through them, letting her weep as she needed while aiding her in continuing to walk and avoid obstacles. It was a strange little arrangement that Allie would probably be mildly ashamed of later, for being so bloody helpless she needed someone to keep her walking in the right direction, but for the moment she was just glad to be able to close her eyes for a bit without worry of stumbling off the side of the mountain.

    Not long after she succumbed to her emotions and let Moody guide her along, she felt an odd presence beside her, as if someone was walking on the side opposite Moody. That wasn't quite right though; it was more like there was someone else inside her head, alongside her normal thoughts, riding along quietly. Allie had no idea what in the world was going on to cause that strange feeling, but it managed to get her thoughts off of sad things. She imagined reaching out to grab the odd sensation, and she stumbled and almost tripped when it responded.

    Ah, so you sensed me. Intriguing.” It was a masculine voice, not especially deep but still lower in tone than the vast majority of women. No sound passed through her ears though, and it was as if the strange entity was speaking directly into her mind. “That is exactly what I'm doing.” Well that was all kinds of fucked up. Allie made as if to speak, but the voice made an irritated noise and hurried to say more. “You do realize they'll simply think you're insane, yes? Allow me to explain myself before you go doing anything that might cause you harm. I assure you I am no threat, and I shall leave you alone should you wish it, after I've told you what I need to say. And you don't need to speak aloud to communicate, just think it.

    Allie mulled it over for a while, still walking with her eyes closed and letting Moody guide her. Perhaps she was going insane. It was either that or someone, or something was trying to talk to her without others knowing it was there. Whichever it was, blabbing about it could wait at least until they were somewhere less treacherous than near the top of a mountain. Until then, she supposed hearing the voice out couldn't hurt.

    Excellent. You're quite practical. I like that.” Allie imagined growling at the voice to vent her annoyance at what seemed like a patronizing tone to her. The voice laughed at her. “My apologies, I did not intend it to come off that way. I was being sincere. Practicality is an important trait in mortals. I've been, as you termed it in your thoughts, riding around in the heads of your fellows for the last hour or so, and you are the first truly practical one of the lot.” She got the sense that he intended to say something other than 'mortals' but changed his mind at the last second; the voice did not deign to respond to that thought. “First and foremost, your Lizardwoman friend is on the right track. After completing your business here on Soulathel, the journey must turn toward Norlathel. You will have assistance provided by an associate of mine. You've no reason to trust me at the moment though, so I shall have to prove my worth to you, I'm sure.” Allie mentally agreed and imagined the voice appearing before her to speak face to face. She had a hard time even conceiving of trusting a strange voice in her head, but meeting the actual person behind it would be a good first step.

    I'm afraid appearing just this moment would startle your friends and cause a lot of trouble. For now, allow me to provide some information to prove I know more than just how to talk inside your head. A shrine sits in a small clearing near the very top of Soulathel, though to you it will look like a magitech box rather than a shrine. Its guardian is a small dragon named Rose; she is a lonely child, but fiercely protective of her responsibilities all the same. You and your friends must appease the dragon to make it open the shrine, and inside you will find a weapon. If I'm correct about you and your potential, I suspect you will be the one to convince the dragon to open the shrine, and the shrine itself will recognize you as worthy enough to remove its contents. I will simply observe, whether from inside your head or not, as you prefer. I understand this can feel rather intrusive and will not force my presence upon you.

    Allie had a lot of questions after that speech. As many of them rolled through her mind, questions about the weapon and the dragon and why she of all people might be the one to do whatever was supposed to be done, she felt amusement radiating from her strange mental passenger. That would not do at all. Perhaps she was insane, or perhaps this was something else, but she would not abide by something in her own head sitting there laughing at her annoyance. She imagined kicking the voice out of her head and watching it sail down the side of the mountain. It laughed again, filled with what seemed like genuine amusement. “Very well. I will return afterward, assuming my predictions are correct, and we can discuss things in more detail at that time. Good luck.” The voice faded along with the sense of another being residing alongside her own thoughts. If it was in fact a manifestation of madness rather than something actually talking in her head, at least it was well-behaved for the time being. Allie opened her eyes, patted Moody's hand and gave her a nod and smile full of gratitude, and kept on walking with her arm linked with the ink elf's rather than pulling away.

    The chatter between Tari and Raven had veered off into something about monsters and prophecies, something to do with 'the deep one', and Allie only half listened to it. The rough and winding path they were taking up the mountain was spiraling up around the whole of the mountain now rather than going straight up the steep side, and for a quarter turn of the circle she could spot what looked like a flat area a couple hundred feet before the peak. Only the very top of the mountain had a light dusting of snow on it, the top hundred feet or so, but it was rather cold even at this level. They kept on going for another twenty minutes, with that flat area getting closer and closer, until finally they rounded the bend and saw the path curving up sharply to end at the edge of that level space. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible until they were almost to the end of the path, and it grew steep enough that Allie had to disentangle herself from Moody and use her hands to half walk, half climb the last thirty feet or so.

    As she did, the so-called shrine came into view. The voice in her head was right: it did indeed look like a magitech box. It was made of some kind of stone, much darker than the light grey stone of the mountain itself, but it had intricate patterns made of a vibrant blue color tracing all along its surface. The thing seemed to be a perfect cube, about fifteen feet across on each side, and the edges of each block looked from a distance like they had been cut with inhumanly perfect square angles. Once everyone was up on the flat area, they approached the structure as a group. Allie could see once they were near that it wasn't just the appearance of perfectly square angles, it was indeed inhumanly perfect. There wasn't even anything like mortar between the stones to keep them together. What had from a distance looked like large circles and squares of blue magitech circuitry turned out to be intricate masses of smaller designs, and then even the larger lines that ran all around it proved to be made up of four or five separate lines of interweaving patterns running more or less parallel with each other. Raven stopped a few feet away from the stone structure and most stopped with him, but Allie continued forward and she saw Tari doing the same. Raven called out for them to stop, but Allie was already reaching up to touch the stone when a loud, rumbling voice filled the air and shocked her into stepping back.

    It spoke in words Allie could not understand, but it was powerful enough to make the ground rumble and cause bits of stone to shake and jump a few inches into the air. As soon as the sound died away, Tari called out in very similar-sounding words. Raven piped up as well, then the rumbling said something else, a brief single word, before it turned into something that sounded like laughter, after which it cut off entirely without even an echo remaining.

    Tari scratched idly at her neck scales for a few seconds before turning around and addressing everyone who hadn't understood the words. “That first call out was something along the lines of 'Who dares disturb the Vault of Light?' Perhaps another word would work better than vault, but I'm sure none of you are particularly bothered by the inexact nature of translations. I said 'We are refugees', or more precisely 'travelers from a broken village', and then said we were guided here by a friend. Raven, if I have the syntax correct, spoke quite informally and said 'It's me, stop playing around.' The loud one then yelled 'Bird!' and laughed.” She looked to Raven with a familiar curiosity in her eyes, but did not follow it up. “I'm not sure what it means, but I suspect we'll learn shortly.”

    'Shortly' turned out to be about fifteen seconds, by Allie's reckoning. The sound of flapping wings reached her ear and was followed quickly by more words in the same odd language, though this time much less painfully loud. She followed them to the source and found a small dragon perched upon the edge of the stone structure. It looked just red on first glance, but the scales looked like they started a bright crimson at the base and faded to a light pink at the edges. The dragon was no more than two feet long, not counting its tail which probably added another foot, though its outspread wings gave it the appearance of being much larger. It was looking at Raven and going on and on in what sounded for all the world like the excited babbling of a child.

    Raven held up a hand, apparently requesting silence, but he ended up having to speak over the dragon. “I'm here for important business, Rose, and only one of my companions speaks the language of the gods. Please speak so they may understand. The evil gods are unleashed upon the world and the time has come. We're here to retrieve that which you have been guarding. Open the box and we'll be on our way.”

    The little dragon cocked her head to the side, staring at Raven for a few moments as if confused, then snorted. “It's not a box, it's a shrine. Didn't Jorick tell you that, bird?” Rose folded her wings in and stat on the stone, no longer bothering with an intimidating posture. “I don't have to open it. Jorick said I get to choose when to open it, and I don't feel like it today. You're being boring, go away.”

    “No, you can't just—“ Raven was forced to jump back as Rose inhaled deeply and opened her mouth. Rather than the expected fire, a storm of little red and white and pink things burst forth and flew toward where he'd been standing. The objects stabbed into the ground and gave the rock a rather pretty line of color, stopping just shy of Raven's feet in his new position. It took Allie a moment to recognize the objects, but they were definitely flower petals, almost certainly rose petals given the colors and the dragon's name.

    “I can just.” Rose's words were practically dripping with smugness. “Jorick said so. He said not to listen to you or anybody else. He said I only have to open the shrine if I like the person who wants it opened. I don't like you when you're not even a bird, so go away or I won't miss next time.”

    Raven was reduced to helpless speechlessness. Allie, on the other hand, had to hide a grin. This was exactly the sort of petty silliness she would expect from a child, and in fact she'd seen her own children do similar things. She turned halfway around to gesture to Raven without letting the petty tyrant of a dragon see it: a circular swirling of her finger to indicate everyone gathered, then and exaggerated look to him and over to the dragon. It took her a couple tries to get his attention, but once he saw it he got it immediately.

    “Okay Rose, you win, you don't have to open it for me.” Raven gave Rose a moment to giggle in pleasure at her victory before continuing. “But what about everyone else? They all want you to open the shrine too. Maybe you'll like one of them. Can they try?” Allie directed sharp glances at a few of those gathered, and they quickly caught on and voiced their support for the notion.

    Rose looked around at the lot of them, head swiveling back and forth in a rather birdlike manner. She clearly enjoyed the attention, but Allie could see the prospect of fun warring with the petty stubbornness in her eyes. She added her own voice to those pleading to be given a chance, and finally, once everyone but Raven was calling for it, Rose sighed and dipped her head. “Fine. I only like people who amuse me, and mortals are boring, but you can all try. Only one try for each of you though.” She remained seated atop the shrine and looked around at them all, quite clearly seeking whoever would be the first to try to amuse her.

    Tari stepped up and started in on a story. Allie lost track of it not very far into it, something about a god who fell in love with an Immortal, but there were so many names brought up that it quickly became a jumbled mess in her mind. She was getting around to explaining the creation of mortals when Rose yawned, which was accompanied by a waft of rose petals floating gently out of her mouth. “Boooooooooooooooring. You lose.” Tari sighed and inclined her head before stepping away, though Allie thought she heard the Lizardwoman muttering under her breath as she did so.

    Wyllow, the dryad who had come with them after warning them of the oncoming horde of undead creatures, surprised Allie by stepping up to be next. She stood there in silence for a little while, then her black and white bark skin shifted into a mossy green color. Flowers started to sprout out of her limbs and chest in a dazzling array of color. Rose perked up with interest at first, but as the display finished and left the dryad as practically a living garden the little dragon looked bored once more. When Wyllow gave a little bow and signaled the end of her performance, earning some applause from the others gathered around, Rose passed her verdict. “Making flowers is pretty, but I can do it too.” She gasped in some air and directed her breath down toward the base of the shrine, and little green shoots started sprouting from the rock itself. Within a few seconds they were budding into a rainbow of colors, much like that which Wyllow was now wearing. “Boring!” The dryad's flowers began to slowly reverse their growth, being pulled back into Wyllow's body as she went to join Tari in failure and watch the others try.

    Rook, the large orc blacksmith, was up next. He pulled a two foot long metal rod from the pack slung over his back and offered it to the dragon. “It's good, strong iron. Go ahead and try to break it or bite it, see if you can do any damage.” Rose took to the offer with gusto, gnawing on the end of the length of metal and scratching it with her claws in an attempt to bend it. When Rook gently extracted it, the iron looked none the worse for wear. “Strong, see?” Rose nodded her agreement. Rook took the iron in both hands and started to bend it. The muscles of his arms bulged with the strain, but the metal slowly gave way to brute force. By the time he was done, the bar was bent nearly in half. He held it up for the dragon to inspect.

    Rose looked somewhat impressed, but again Allie could see the stubbornness working away in her eyes. This time it won the internal battle. “Nope. You're a orc, of course you're strong. If you were a human then it would be amusing.” She skittered to the side on the stone and looked over at the rest of those who hadn't yet tried. Clearly she was eager for the entertainment, and Allie had a suspicion that she would find reasons to deny everyone until perhaps the last person. She also noticed something interesting from the villagers: they seemed excited as well. This was something like what happened on festival nights, when people had fun and tried to entertain each other with whatever antics they thought up. This was the first time she'd seen them really smiling and enjoying themselves since the attack on Eles just a couple days ago. It wasn't as if everything was fine now, but this was a nice and happy moment that they probably all needed.

    Candy, Rook's human apprentice, tried next. He did a couple cartwheels to warm up, then walked all the way around the shrine on his hands. Rose seemed interested, but by the time he made it halfway around the stone structure the dragon was balanced up on her two front legs and following him along. Of course she didn't give approval to something she herself could do, so Candy joined the others who had failed. Next came Moody, who concentrated for a moment then showed how ink was dripping from her scalp. She used a bit of her own hair to act as a pen, dipping into the scalp and then writing 'Rose' on her arm. The little dragon decided it was interesting, but just as she disqualified Rook for being an orc, she said an ink elf being able to produce ink wasn't amusing because it was something they were naturally able to do.

    Nav, the Kitsune woman known best for her cooking, borrowed a potato from Zuma to show off her skills. She pulled a knife from her bag, tossed the potato into the air, and slashed at it so quickly that Allie had a hard time keeping track of her hand. What landed on the stone at her feet was a scattering of cubed chunks of potato. She must have made at least ten cuts while the thing was in the air to make that work, far more than a normal person would be able to do. Just as Allie was deciding there had to be some magic at work (even as she applauded, because it was impressive regardless), Rose noted the same thing and said it was cool but using magic meant it wasn't cool enough. Nav bowed dramatically and twirled her knife through her fingers as she joined the losers circle to be greeted by Candy excitedly asking her how she'd done it. They chattered quietly with each other as Shizuo stepped forward.

    The man with greying hair said nothing at all. He pulled a gold coin from his pocket, and Allie knew exactly what they were in for; Shizuo had been using sleight of hand tricks to impress children for many years, after all. He showed the coin to Rose, then flipped it up in the air. He reached out with his right hand to grab it, but then opened it to show it was empty. His left hand, which hadn't seemed to go anywhere near the right, opened to show the coin somehow there all the same. He repeated the trick a couple times, but the coin appeared in his front shirt pocket on the second go, and on the third he opened his mouth to show it resting on his tongue. Shizuo then passed the coin from left hand to right, and suddenly there were two. He tossed them both back to the left hand and then there were three coins. Another couple passes and finally four coins were resting in his left palm. Rose had been watching the whole time with wide eyes. It looked like he'd won her over, but then he went for his normal final trick and it did not go so well: he said there was supposed to be five coins, reached back as if to grab something from behind Rose's non-existent ear... and the dragon turned and bit his hand. It was clearly an instinctual defensive maneuver, and she let go almost immediately, but Shizuo cried out in pain and pulled his hand back in obvious pain. As he did so, a multitude of coins fell loose from his sleeve, scattering onto the stone and the patch of flowers the dragon had created earlier.

    Rose looked from the coins on the ground and back up to Shizuo with narrowed eyes. Moody hurried over to help him with the wound, which was only bleeding a little, but the dragon seemed totally unperturbed by the fact that she'd harmed him. Instead she seemed to be offended. “They were just hidden in your sleeves the whole time. That's cheating. You lose.” Shizuo sighed and shook his head but said nothing in response, which was likely a good thing since despite the supposed cheating Rose's annoyance was already faded as she turned to look at the two remaining people. Allie was still not sure what exactly she would do, so she looked to Zuma and gestured for him to go next. He set his sack of potatoes down and walked over to stand in front of the dragon.

    “I was considering showing off something a little dangerous, a secret skill I've got, but maybe that's not a good idea if you didn't like mister Shizuo's little trick. I've got a backup plan though.” He held up one hand and a potato appeared in it. “I'm going to use a little magic for this, but only to make the potatoes appear. Everything else is just my hands. I know making potatoes isn't anything impressive, but maybe you'll like this anyway.” Rose clicked her claws impatiently on the stone, so Zuma hurried to get to work. He made two more potatoes appear in his hands and started to juggle them. Rose looked surprised for a moment, then she started tracking the pattern with her eyes. She clambered down the front of the shrine to grab some of the pieces of chopped up potato and stood up on her back legs as she tried to juggle them, but she only managed a few throws and catches before missing one. She tried again, watching Zuma while he did it, and did a little better. Her limbs were not quite dexterous enough to do it well, but Allie could see her already learning toward concluding that Zuma's feat was not that impressive.

    “A good try! I didn't do that well my first time.” Zuma gave the dragon an encouraging nod, then suddenly another potato appeared in his hands and joined the pattern. It was quickly followed by a fifth and a sixth. Roses eyes grew wide and she gathered up half a dozen pieces, but she couldn't even get them all in the air before some hit the ground. She abandoned the attempt and climbed back up the stone to perch on the edge and watch Zuma's performance. He added a seventh potato and gave the dragon a smile. “Most people find it hard to manage even three for long. I've seen some traveling performers get up to seven. Eight though, eight is tough.” An eighth potato appeared, balancing on its end atop Zuma's head. He let it fall forward, appeared to miss it entirely, but then at the last second he caught it on one of his boots and gently tossed it up to his hands. The juggling pattern got a little shaky then, but Zuma held on for a good half a minute. Rather than letting them fall to the ground, he ended his performance by catching them all one by one and ending up with his arms across his chest holding all eight of them. Everyone watching was applauding, and for good reason: those from Eles had seen Zuma juggling before, but at last year's harvest festival he'd struggled with six. Clearly he'd been practicing since then, and Allie suspected he'd been hoping to show off his progress at the next harvest festival. That wasn't going to happen of course, but his efforts seemed to have paid off regardless.

    Rose was practically wiggling with excitement. Allie expected her to demand to see it again, but the little dragon kept herself in check. For all her apparent youthful exuberance it seemed Rose was working hard to present a mature front. She stayed quiet for a bit, claws clacking on the stone as she paced around on top of it contemplating her verdict. Eventually she stopped facing Zuma and put on a haughty voice. “Okay, maybe that was amusing, and maybe I want to see it again, and maybe that'll be enough to make me like you...” She turned quickly to face Allie, standing alone off to the side where those waiting to perform had congregated at first. “But I want to see what she does before I decide.”

    Well crap. Allie was glad she'd managed to keep the thought in her mind rather than speaking it aloud. After seeing Zuma's impressive display of juggling skills, she had thought she'd get away without having to do anything. She was always the sort to help organize other people doing extraordinary things, never one to take the stage. In all this time she hadn't been able to think of anything she could do that might impress Rose. She had her skills, sure, but none of them were showy or entertaining. At best she might have been able to tell a story in a way that might thrill the dragon like it thrilled her kids, but she always read them straight from books rather than remembering them and now she was drawing a blank. Her own thoughts made her remember something more recent, something the strange voice had said to her in speaking about the dragon: “she is a lonely child.” That piece clicked into place as she was walking up to take Zuma's place, and then another followed quickly: Rose's behavior upon hearing it was Raven was just what she would expect of a child excited to have a friend to play with, and she'd turned sour when Raven was in his human form and acting seriously. She suspected that in the past they had flown around this mountaintop together, and that Raven had been the closest thing to a friend the dragon had for who knew how many years. That was a sad thought indeed, but it gave her an idea.

    “Hello Rose. I'm Allie.” None of the others had bothered to introduce themselves. They'd played into the little would-be tyrant's game of control and let themselves be turned into toys for her amusement. Allie intended to shatter the game entirely.

    “Hi Allie!” Rose leaned forward over the edge of the shrine, spreading her wings out a bit to maintain balance. “Can you do the thing with the potatoes too?”

    “No, I'm afraid not, and if I tried I know it would look just awful compared to what Zuma did.” She held up her hands and wiggled her fingers. “My hands are too slow for it.”

    Rose looked over to Zuma and, if Allie heard correctly, whispered his name as if trying to remember it. The dragon then imitated her by lifting one front leg and wiggling her claws. “Mine too. I almost did it with three though!”

    “I saw. It was very impressive. I don't think I would have done as well as you, honestly.” Allie used the same tone of voice as when she praised her own children, and it seemed to work: Rose got that smug look on her face again and she sat up straight on the edge of the stone. “I do, however, know how to do some things that my friends aren't so good at.”

    “Like what?” Rose looked over to the gathering of people. “Are they all your friends? What are you gonna do to amuse me that's better than what they did?”

    “Yep, they're all my friends. They're all good at things, but they didn't do the most important thing.” Allie pointed at each of them in turn, using this as an excuse to introduce each person to the inquisitive dragon. “Tari is good at telling stories, but she likes all the details instead of sticking to the fun stuff. Wyllow is one of my new friends, she just joined us a couple days ago, and she's really good at taking care of plants, but she didn't realize you already know all about flowers. Rook is strong, but just being strong isn't enough for a smart dragon like you to be impressed. Candy is a nimble fellow, but you're just as good as he is I think. Moody is one of the kindest people I've ever met, but she tried a neat trick instead of using that. I am infinitely jealous of Nav's cooking skills, but a dragon doesn't really have any need of such skills. Shizuo's tricks are fun, but you saw through them for what they were: just tricks. Raven, that's what we call our new bird friend, didn't get much of a chance because he was too busy being serious.” Allie turned back to the dragon and gave her a smile. “What they all missed was what you actually want, Rose. That's my special skill, figuring what mischievous little scamps like you really need. Not even you know what it is, I think.”

    Rose had been following along with the naming and explanations, this time more obviously repeating the given names. When Allie turned the attention back on her, the dragon looked confused but also seemed quite pleased with the 'mischievous little scamp' label. “How do I not know what I want? I just wanna have fun. I know that.”

    “That's what you want, but not what you need.” Rose gave her another confused look. “The difference is what will make you happy for a little bit versus what will make you happy for a long time. Zuma's juggling is great, and you could make him do it a couple more times before opening up the shrine, but then we'd leave and you'd be left up here by yourself with nothing more to do. So what you actually need is something else to do after your duty here is done, something that will be a lot more fun than living on top of a mountain with only a bird friend who doesn't come visit very often.”

    There was some sadness in the dragon's eyes now, and Allie could see a growing horror there as well as her little reptilian eyes grew wide. It seemed her guesses had been right on the mark, and now she'd made Rose understand her own odd predicament. Allie waited quietly for the dragon to process it and come to the obvious, childish conclusion. It took only about a minute. “Then I won't open the shrine and you'll all have to stay here to ask me to open it.” She looked smug again, but Allie quickly sighed and shot that idea down.

    “I'm afraid not. If you don't open the shrine today, then we're going to have to leave and not come back. Our home was destroyed, you see, and we'll want to go far away to find somewhere else to go.” Rose was bobbing her head back and forth now, quite obviously trying to think of a solution, so Allie provided one for her. “However, you could come with us if you wanted. There are a lot more people waiting down the mountain. In fact, I've got two sons and a daughter who would love to meet you. When they ask me to tell them stories at night, for the last week they've been asking for the same exact thing. Can you guess what it is?”

    Rose was clacking he claws on the stone and swiveling her head back and forth in another overt show of indecision, but the question disrupted her line of thoughts. “Ummm, scary stories? Ones where the bad people get eated? I know some stories like that.”

    Allie gave her an approving smile. “No, but I'm sure they would love to hear them. The stories they've been asking for are stories about dragons.” It was all to do with the scare they'd had with the huge dragon that flew over Eles. Since then the children of the village had worked themselves into a collective obsession with dragons, and every night the requests were for dragon stories.

    Rose stared at her in silence for a few seconds before stating the obvious. “I'm a dragon.” She did more of her head swiveling for a bit. “Would they wanna meet a real dragon? Not just story dragons?”

    “Oh, of course.” Allie lowered her voice into a conspiratorial tone. “They might be scared at first, because dragons are terrifying and powerful creatures, but I think they'll like you a lot once they get to know you. They run around all day playing and making noise and having fun with the other children. I think you'd enjoy it.”

    “So all I gotta do is open the shrine and then I can go with you and meet all the new people and have fun all day?” Rose barely waited for Allie to nod, and didn't even give her a chance to properly reply, before running around in a circle atop the shrine and jumping off to launch into flight. The blue glowing lights of the shrine immediately started to burn brighter, growing intense enough that Allie had to look away from it. A little while later she felt a weight on her shoulder, accompanied by sharp points digging through her shirt and into her skin, though not hard enough to draw blood. The voice made quite clear that it was indeed Rose the dragon. “It's opening! The sword doesn't like most people though, so I dunno if it'll let anyone take it. You just said open the shrine though, and I did it, so I'm going with you even if the sword doesn't wanna go!”

    Allie wasn't sure what exactly Rose was babbling about, but she reached up and gently patted her side. “Of course, little one. We'll see if the sword wants to come first, then we'll head back down the mountain.” A rumbling sound filled her ear, and she figured it had to be something like the dragon equivalent of purring. She hadn't realized dragons had an equivalent to purring, but there was the proof right in her ear.

    As the light started to fade, Allie cautiously looked toward the shrine. It no longer looked like a stone cube. In fact, she supposed the new configuration would fit quite well in a proper shrine. The top of what had been a cube had curved upward to form a dome at the top. The stone at the front of the cube had moved out of the way, leaving an open space and forming stairs that rose about five feet in total, and the excess stone from that space was still moving and turning the front of the shrine into a mass of intricate swirling patterns made of ribbons of stone twisting around each other. The light of magitech circuitry aligned to the edges of those lines of stone while moving away from the other parts, leaving half a dozen spirals of blue light climbing up to each side of the new opening. The new stairs led up to a small platform that had a raised block of unadorned stone, but this was white as fresh snow and had a sword sticking up out of it. Even Allie, who had no skill at all with magic, could feel something like a mix of a strong gust of wind and slowly scraping claws passing over her. It wasn't exactly a physical sensation, like Rose's claws in he shoulder, but she felt it all the same.

    The sword looked almost plain compared to its container. The blade was straight and had black symbols formed of harsh, angular lines placed along it every few inches. At the base of the blade there was a thick piece curved piece of metal, the part Allie was pretty sure was called a crossguard, that looked like someone had taken one of the rectangular pieces of metal that Rook used to make simple blades and then bent it and stuck it on there to curve away from the hilt. It was some kind of dark grey metal, much darker grey than the blade's almost silver gleam, and at the bottom of the hilt there was a sphere of metal in the same color. Allie supposed the the crossguard was bent like that to catch and hold enemy weapons, and the ball was probably something to do with weight. The handle itself was wrapped with what looked to be old and well-worn leather that could have done with a replacement long ago.

    Tari was the first to break the tense silence that had built up while everyone examined the sword. “Is.. is that what I think it is? There's only one sword I've ever heard of that would warrant this sort of protection.”

    “That,” Raven strode forward confidently, making for the steps, “is Godslayer.” As he briskly walked his way up toward the blade he spoke without turning his head, but it echoed out of the stone chamber well enough for them all to hear. “Jorick, the Guardian of Light, made me and Rose for this purpose. She was to guard it, and I was to find those worthy to gain access to it. He never told me what was supposed to happen after that, but I think I figured it out.” Raven made it to the top of the steps and slowly placed both hands on the hilt of the blade. “I think he made me to wield Godslayer.” He tugged on the sword... and nothing happened. He pulled again. Then again, harder, straining against it relentlessly.

    “Wrong!” Rose called out from her new perch on Allie's shoulder. “I'm the protector and you're the guide. Didn't Jorick tell you that a mortal will be the new Guardian of Light? He told me.” Smugness was, yet again, thick in her words. “You guided them all here, so it must be one of them!”

    Raven stood up there for a while before letting go of the sword. His face was held carefully blank when he turned around, but it was still obvious he was quite embarrassed. His trip down the stairs was quicker and less dramatic than the trip up, and when he spot it was in a flat but strained voice. “The gods will probably be able to feel the sword now. Let's hurry and find out if one of you can wield it before one of them shows up and kills us all.”

    Tari hurried up the steps as soon as Raven cleared the way. She gave the sword a few vigorous tugs, then gave it up and started looking over the details of the weapon rather than trying to free it from its base. Moody called out to her that she needed to let others try, and that got her to leave the sword alone for the time being. Rook decided to try next, but Allie had a sinking feeling that she knew how this was going to go.

    In the shuffling that had occurred as the shrine changed its shape, Nav had ended up standing near to her. Allie leaned over and spoke quietly enough so that only the Kitsune woman (and Rose, probably) would be able to hear. “Did you feel something.. weird? When the shrine opened, I mean.”

    Nav gave her a confused glance. “No. The ground shook a little bit. Why?”

    “Aw, crap.” Allie didn't give a proper response, but she looked over to find Rook struggling with the sword and failing to remove it, which came as no surprise to her. That strange voice in her head had said it thought she would get the shrine open and remove its contents. As Rook gave up his attempts, Allie sighed and resigned herself to whatever fate had forced upon her. Better to get it over with now rather than waiting until she was the last to try, she figured. She was the first to reach the steps after Rook cleared the way, and she hurried up them at a brisk pace.

    “Ooooh, is the sword gonna like you?” Rose snuggled down against her neck. “I like you, so I hope the sword likes you too. It's a strong sword.”

    “We shall see.” Allie made it to the top of the steps and wasted no time in grabbing the hilt. She gave it a little experimental tug and felt the blade shift immediately. For a wild moment she thought of pretending that it wouldn't budge, maybe miming an effort like the others had given it, but then the practical part of her mind kicked in. Apparently this sword was necessary to stop the mess that was ruining the world, and it sounded like it would only accept one person, so she had to choose between dodging whatever hellish responsibility fate was thrusting at her and maybe saving the whole world. That wasn't a real choice at all.

    Allie sighed and tugged the blade loose, and immediately she felt the shrine rumbling and that same weird pressure rippling all over her body. As she stood there staring at the sword, at Godslayer, the shrine reconfigured itself again. The ceiling and the remaining three walls folded away and came down to form a rough cone shape under the platform she was standing on, like a hill made of stone steps, and the magitech light slowly faded from them. The white block sank into the dark stone, and just before it disappeared something else shot out of it: a length of brown leather that twisted in the air and slipped perfectly over the blade of the sword. For a moment she saw black markings appear on the sheath, just like the ones on the blade, but then they disappeared and took the uncomfortable pressure with them. She supposed the sheath must do something to hold the sword's power in, which was quite nice because the thought of feeling that annoying pressure every second of the day was enough to make her consider throwing the damned thing off the mountaintop.

    She turned to face her friends and fellow refugees and held the sheathed blade up for them to see. She didn't really have anything to say, and they were all quietly staring up at her with various degrees of awe and confusion. Rose, however, was not stricken silent. “Allieallieallieallieallie! Do you know what this means?!” The small dragon jumped off of her shoulder and started flying around in circles over her head. “It means you're the new Guardian of Liiiiiiiiight!”

    Raven stared up at the circling dragon for a few seconds, blinked, then knelt on the stone and bowed his head toward Allie, like she was some kind of queen. Candy followed suit, but then when he looked around and saw that nobody else had done so he quickly stood up and tried to act like nothing had happened. It was a horribly awkward little moment. Allie wasn't sure how to respond to someone kneeling to her, so she decided to ignore it and descend from the raised platform. She spoke some thoughts aloud, half to herself and half hoping for answers. “I don't even know what a Guardian of Light is. What am I even supposed to do with this sword? I don't know how to use a sword. This is madness.” She was met with an unexpected barrage of voices: Tari wanting to explain something about history, Rose talking about beating bad guys, Nav and Rook offering to help her learn how to use a blade, and Raven talking about duties and responsibilities. One voice, however, caught her attention above all of them.

    So I was right, you are in fact the savior I've been seeking. Allow me to properly introduce myself, now that you hold the means to slay me.” There was an unmistakable tone of amusement in the voice that had returned to her head, but Allie thought she could hear some fear in there too. “Oh yes, and if you'd seen what that sword could do to my kind you would be afraid too. I am the Lord of Mysteries, the Unseen Lord, and more recently given the amusing appellation of Lord of Inscrutability. You, however, may call me Rory. I am a god, and I'd like to help guide you do use the sword for its intended purpose. You're going to slay gods, and you're going to help usher in a new age. Exciting, isn't it?

    Exciting was not exactly the word Allie would have chosen. She headed for the path down the mountain, mostly ignoring the chattering people who trailed after her, and tried to think of the appropriate word. Awful? Terrifying? Horrifying? Horrifying felt good. All she wanted was to go back to a peaceful life in her village, but apparently fate and a literal god had much bigger things in mind for her. It was absolutely horrifying. Rory's laughter in her head did nothing to help matters. She stomped her way down the path in silence, giving more consideration to chucking Godslayer off into the distance and crawling in a hole and hiding until the world's problems sorted themselves out, but she knew she couldn't do that. She was too practical for that. She would complain about it, at least in her own head, but in the end she would make the only practical decision. She would go slay gods and change the world, but she was certainly not going to be happy about the whole damned mess suddenly coming to rest on her shoulders.

    The Speaker of the Dead floated high in the air and looked on dispassionately as his undead dragons landed and offloaded swarms of other dead things to rush off toward the little cluster of tents in the distance. The travel north and across the short bit of the sea that separated the two continents had been dreadfully boring after the major population centers had been dealt with. This land of the northern clans, the uncivilized neighbors to the grand mortal kingdoms, looked to hold little of value as well. It almost wasn't worth even bothering to kill them, but the undead were restless after the trip so it was good to let them stretch their legs.

    Dunru, one of the ghosts attached to the army, floated up toward Holm with a posse of other ghosts trailing behind. They had been growing irritatingly hard to control over the past couple days, and he suspected they knew it just as well as he did. There was not much a pack of ghosts could do to cause him any trouble other than minor annoyance, but it was an irritation nonetheless.

    “So boss, what's next?” Dunru called him 'boss,' but the tone was informal enough to feel like insolence. “Heading south to wreck the cities? Or are the meaty ones down there gonna be wasted on hunting down barbarians?”

    “The barbarians are simply in our path and might as well be exterminated as we see them. We will make for the cities to the south soon enough. But first—“ A sudden jolt to his senses, tiny like a mosquito bite but in his mind rather than on his flesh, made him pause and cast about with his magic for an answer. He turned in the air to look toward the southwest, and after a few seconds he found the source, much smaller than he would have thought could make him feel its revelation half the world away. Godslayer had been unearthed from wherever it had been hidden. There would be true opposition in this was after all, it seemed, but that changed nothing. Holm turned back to Dunru and continued.

    “First, I have a different, more important target to take care of. The Lord of Destruction contacted me a few hours ago and asked me to see to her personally.” The Speaker of the Dead turned his eyes eastward. “I'll be paying a final visit to the Witch of the Water today.”

    The reverberation of power did not shake the ground or the trees in any physical way, but on another plane of sensation it was like an earthquake had left the area a shattered mess. Diana felt a faint smile tugging at her lips as she watched Grene finally connect to the power of the dead gods. It had taken her less time than expected, which was quite good because the original time line for this last ditch effort of a plan had cut far too close for comfort. Going through all this effort and then failing to get her unwilling champion to the battle in time would have been a shame indeed. Now it was left to the coin toss over which monstrous abomination of power would prevail in the end.

    As Grene stood there panting and likely struggling to figure out how to actually use her new powers, another, much smaller, wave of power came from the north. It was like the ripple of a stone tossed into a pond compared to the splash created by a rambunctious child belly flopping into that same pond. Diana supposed Godslayer's power would have seemed impressive if not for what preceded it, but the sword was vitally important in its own way. Rory had found the savior after all, and now a mortal Guardian of Light was added to the fray. Where just days before the war looked lost before it had even begun, now things were quickly stacking up to balance the scales. If they hadn't been the result of years and years of meticulous plotting and microscopic nudges to get things in the right place at the right time, it would have felt far too easy.

    “Well Grene, my dear, you're just about ready. We can start with flight when you're ready. It should come easily to you, and you'll need it to fight Speaker of the Dead.” Diana stood from where she'd been sitting the past two days as she forced the Immortal to work through immense pain to achieve the power of dead gods. It had been tedious, but ultimately quite necessary.

    Grene took in a deep breath and turned to face the god. The skin on her face and arms was twitching with uncontrolled little jolts of power, and her pupils looked like they were vibrating rather than staying in one place. Such oddities were to be expected as her body grew accustomed to so much energy pulsing through it, but it was somewhat disturbing all the same. When she spoke, her voice was steady but devoid of emotion. “Or I could crush you like a bug and be done with this right here and now.”

    Diana felt rather than saw a sphere of raw power appear around her. She cocked a brow and poked at it with her own abilities. It was, unsurprisingly, utterly unaffected by her probing touch. “Yes, you could indeed.” The walls of the sphere closed in on her, leaving her with little room to move. “But you won't. You know that as much as you despise me in this moment, I do what must be done for the sake of the world and all its inhabitants. I know that underneath your spite and resentment you know this is necessary.” The containing sphere pushed in a little farther, making Diana bow her head, then shuddered and dissipated. Grene's head dropped forward and she shoulders shook with silent sobs.

    Diana closed the gap with a few strides and pulled Grene into a hug. “Shhh, it's alright.” Her tone was soothing and kind, but it had an undercurrent of authority all the same. “If you feel like I deserve to die after you've done your duty, you can do as you like to me then. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can be free of your burdens. We will start with flight, as soon as you're ready.” Grene nodded against her, and the Immortal's arms came up to tentatively return the embrace.

    Diana remained quiet and held the girl for as long as she needed. She knew that what she was doing to the poor thing was indeed evil by most any moral reckoning. Diana shouldered that burden with no qualms. The Lord of Destruction had to be stopped, no matter the cost. The future of the world itself was of greater value than any single life, after all. If she had to mangle and abuse a few of them for the greater good, then so be it. She was well prepared to be the lesser evil in this war for the sake of winning it, even if it cost the lives of herself and everyone she held dear.
    • Love Love x 3
    • Bucket of Rainbows Bucket of Rainbows x 2
    • Nice execution! Nice execution! x 2
  14. Chapter 9 - Waiting For The World To End

    The airships touched down on solid land as the sun was setting. Ozzie sat against the railing of the lead ship, still reading the book he'd gotten from the witch, though now he was reading a certain entry over again for what felt like the hundredth time. It had taken them almost an entire day after dealing with the Deep One to make landfall, and he was decidedly uncomfortable with pretty much everything that had happened over the course of the short trip. Worst of all, he was getting a horrible sense of prophecy from what he was reading, as if fate had aligned itself to place this book in his path for the sole purpose of reading this one passage and putting it into practice. That, at least, was a worry for a later date. Hopefully.

    In the middle of the morning, Rissa had caused a ruckus by stomping around the ship and cursing loudly to herself. Kaga had joined in the excitement, but in her own hyperactive and less curse-filled way. The whole thing was a confusing mess until the two of them met each other in the middle of the deck and Kaga's babbling excitement managed to pull answers from the Immortal. They'd both felt something strong from the west, and Rissa had been able to identify it: Godslayer, an immensely powerful sword capable of doing exactly as the name suggested, had been removed from whatever hiding place it had been in for many years now. Rissa had gone off on a tangent about the gods using people as pieces on a game board and how the Witch of the Water was just as bad as any of them, and it wasn't hard to decipher her meaning: this whole trip, the fight with the Deep One and their convenient presence near where Godslayer had been retrieved, was all planned out and orchestrated by the aforementioned schemers. Ozzie would have liked to try getting more details out of the Immortal, but Apple had made needling comments about how Rissa had always just been a pawn anyway, the only one stupid enough to keep guarding a prison that hadn't ever needed a guard, and the resulting petty argument left her in a poor enough mood that avoiding her and staying out of her way became the only sensible option.

    While definitely less important on a grand scale, an issue cropped up after that that had Ozzie feeling far more personally out of sorts. A couple of the clan folk came to him to help resolve a dispute. It was nothing major, easily solved with a little rational thinking from a third party, but that was the sort of thing a clan elder or chief was supposed to handle. A little while after that, the man in charge of supplies had come to him with a report of what they'd lost with the ships that were destroyed and what they had left. Ozzie hadn't been sure at that point why people were coming to him all of the sudden, so he had simply thanked the man and commended his diligence. After a few more minor instances of clan folk coming to him, he'd realized what was happening: they were treating him like the new chief. That startling and unexpected revelation was what had pushed him to retreat into his book, but that had not gone well either.

    Ozzie sighed and read the entry to himself yet again, hoping that he would not feel the weight of dread certainty on his shoulders this time. Sacrifice. He knew the word itself held no power, for he had said it in the past to no effect, but just reading the word from the language of the gods in the explanation that followed made his spine tingle. The concept of sacrifice has undergone much change since the days of the gods. Where we now hold it to mean giving up something we value, be it a possession or our time, older societies practiced a form closer to the original word: slaying living things to appease their own notion of the gods. However, giving up the life to please another is still a couple steps removed from the meaning of the original word. In the tongue of the gods, Sacaria was very personal indeed. It meant to give up one's own life in pursuit of a goal more important than that life. The word was made to refer to a god who gave up her own life to end a great threat, and only a handful of later acts were deemed worthy of the word in its truest sense. To commit Sacaria is to die for the greater good, and few are truly noble enough to see it through.

    Just to try it out about an hour ago, Ozzie had tried saying just the first couple syllables of Sacaria. It had made his whole body tingle and vibrate for a minute, which was a far stronger reaction than he had ever before gotten from not quite saying a word of power. Usually he just got a little shiver that let him know he'd come close, and when he tried it out with another word with Kaga's assistance she had been the one to feel an odd sensation. The fact that this one made Ozzie himself get a strange feeling, plus the explanation itself, was plenty enough to let him know that it was a word that would only affect himself. The book made clear what the result would be, so he planned to never say it... but he couldn't shake the odd sense of inevitability that hovered over him.

    Ozzie set the book aside and watched as men and women hopped off the airships with tools in hand to go hunting for wood and other supplies. Their ships were a little battered and could do with some work before being forced to fly again, especially if they were to have extra people on board soon. That was another of Rissa's conclusions: they'd been sent to fetch the people who actually mattered to the plans of the gods. Off in the western distance, perhaps a day's travel away, Ozzie could see the mountain that Umi had sent them to find. If Rissa was right, then the airships remaining grounded long enough to do some quick fixes would likely be long enough for these supposedly important people to show up. If not, Ozzie figured it couldn't hurt to go check out the mountain for themselves to see if perhaps Rissa had been mistaken.

    For now he just settled back into reading the book, turning the page and moving on to hopefully less ominous and dreary things.

    What had not so long ago been the gleaming beacon of mortal accomplishment was now reduced to a broken mess. Rhea stood on the outer wall of Gencha as she surveyed the city, quite saddened by the sight. What the dragon attack started, the madness that swept the city a couple days ago had all but finished. Piles of rubble dotted the city, crashed airships were scattered throughout, and many standing buildings were blackened by fire, though the last of those had been put out earlier in the day. Everything had a grimy and sullen look to it. Even the people walking the streets generally looked bedraggled at best. It would take a long time to set the city right again in the best of times, but Gencha's troubles were far from over.

    Rhea had been the one to hear the talk of a Lady of Monsters coming to Gencha, and she had rallied the ragged Gencha military to be ready for them even as others were still trying to figure out what in the world had happened. They'd gotten their answers the day after the chaos subsided, from a speech Kitti gave standing in front of the rubble of the Glass Spire and projected through the remnants of the voice carrying crystals that had been set up for her previous speech, but by then the walls had already been manned and prepared for attackers. A good thing they'd been ready, too, because the attacks started mere hours after the speech.

    Monsters had been reduced to a rare inconvenience in modern days, on the eastern continent at least. They'd been hunted down and forced into the last remaining shreds of wilderness far from pockets of civilization. The thing that swooped down from the sky and landed on the wall had been a thing straight out of myths and legends: a beast with the body of a lion, large bat-like wings, a scorpion tale, and a disturbingly humanoid head. The shock and surprise from the defenders of the wall had been enough for the manticore to spear one with its tail and pounce on another, but the others quickly brought their magitech weaponry to bear and blasted the creature into a bloody mess in short order. Since then, some of the lookouts on the wall had been tasked with keeping eyes to the sky rather than just scanning the ground, and they hadn't been surprised since then.

    While a few others had followed the manticore's example yesterday, trying to attack the city as individuals, today was different. Rhea turned from her observation of the city and looked outward. There were roving groups of monsters now, growing more numerous by the hour, and they were all keeping wisely out of the range of the blasts from the magitech weaponry. It was nearing noon and not a single creature had come close enough to be harmed. That was odd indeed, and Rhea suspected it had to be the influence of the Lady of Monsters keeping them all at bay, but there was more to this strategy than simple intimidation by way of numbers. As new monsters appeared in the surrounding lands, they came with people. Some came carrying corpses that were laid out in plain view. Others, particularly the more humanoid sort, came herding living people among them. The people were being put into crude pens and watched over by satyrs and lamias and little rat-like humanoids that Rhea had no name for while the other monsters continued to prowl around the city. It was only a matter of time until they started killing their prisoners. The purpose was not just fear, it was also intended to demoralize the defenders of the city and make them panic. It was a devious and ruthless tactic that would probably work in the end.

    Rhea just was not sure why such deviousness was being put to use. Her best guess was that this Lady of Monsters was a sadistic piece of work that wanted to torment the people of Gencha. For all that Rhea had tried to keep the disturbing news under wraps, talk of the prisoners was already circulating through the city, so if torment was the end goal then it was likely going to be a rousing success. After panic gripped the city, then it would just be a matter of waiting until the Lady of Monsters came and blew a hole in the city wall to let her creatures swarm in and finish the job. Rhea was starting to understand why accounts of sieges always said the waiting was the worst part of it.

    There was nothing to do but wait and hope someone came up with a plan better than waiting and hoping. Rhea turned away from the unpleasant sight and started walking along the wall, inspecting the soldiers and giving them what few words of encouragement she could muster.

    Nue surveyed the damage to the city through narrow eyes, then turned to look outward toward the roving monsters. There was a group of soldiers standing a few hundred feet away, some nervously eyeing Nue and his associates as they stood atop the wall, but none of them had the nerve to question their presence. Given the body language and the frequent glances, the soldiers seemed far more concerned with what was outside the walls that anything stood atop them. It was certainly for the best, for he was in no mood to be pestered by peons at that particular moment.

    “So what's your next brilliant plan? Maybe hire some of those ogres to do your dirty work and hope they won't turn on you? I saw a minotaur out there. Oh, or maybe a harpy?” Lady Snowball's needle-sharp commentary was far from new, but it was grating all the same.

    “I think you've already filled the harpy quota.” Lord Nue didn't need to look over to know that she was pleased with herself for goading him into insulting her, and probably smirking about it too. Snowball had taken every opportunity in the past couple days to rub his nose in his mistake, for all along she had spoken against working with Neos, but after taking his time to consider the situation he finally had a suitable plan to attempt to recover from the troubles causes by the rogue mage. Hopefully that would shut her up. “I will not be hiring any further monsters. You two are monster enough for what needs doing, I think.” Nue expected Snowball to make another snappy remark, but he was surprised to hear the normally quiet Necropolis speaking up instead.

    “I am not a monster.” The lanky man was normally quite passive and calm, but there was sudden heat in his voice. Nue was about to simply wave the response away, but then he recalled something, some rumors that he'd unearthed when he was first looking into hiring Necropolis. A man matching his description, with the same jug of ever-refilling water, was feared in some villages as a vile necromancer. Initially he'd thought it was foolishness based on Necropolis healing people merely presumed dead, but after hearing about what had happened after the fight with Neos he supposed there was more to it and that he'd struck a nerve.

    Nue cleared his throat and struggled to manage an apologetic tone. He was not used to apologizing, and he would not truly do so here, but he couldn't afford to lose resources now. “Yes, of course, it was simply a turn of phrase. A poor one, I suppose. I meant that you and Lady Snowball are skilled enough to do what needs doing if I am to salvage this city and my rule over it once this situation is dealt with.”

    Necropolis squinted at him, then slowly nodded. “Fine. What do you need us to do?” Snowball looked more than a little annoyed that he was taking the lead, but she said nothing.

    Nue let his voice slide back into its usual deep and confident tone. “Nothing complicated for the moment. I need one of you to go see if our friend Quinzel lived through the fighting, and if so bring him to me. The other will need to check in with the owners of certain stores and warehouses to see which will require gold to give up their goods and which are dead and will not be able to protest the acquisitions. Oh, and we'll need to acquire more manual labor to move it all, of course. I suppose I shall see to that.”

    “What for?” Snowball flicked a hand toward the battered city. “It's all ruined and it'll get worse soon. I thought you'd be suggesting finding people to repair an airship so we could get out of here.”

    “Come now, have you ever known me to give up when I decide I want something? The grand plan hasn't changed at all, just the particular issues that need to be handled. I will one day rule over the Ivory Circle, have no doubt about that.” Nue grinned, giving her the full view of the sharp teeth in his canine maw. “But first, we need to save Gencha so I'll have a place to rule from.”

    Kitti found the company of the group of bandits surprisingly comfortable. After working together with Kimberlyn to fight the Lady of Chaos, and staying with Crystal after they thought she was dead, Kitti had become something of an honorary member of the group. The morning and afternoon hours of both days since the madness was handled had been filled with meetings and walks through the city and around the walls to consider a wide array of problems and an even wider array of potential solutions. She still was not used to people deferring to her opinion or calling her Lady Kitti, but leadership was crucial in the wake of disaster so she did her best to provide it. It would have been far more stressful without having a place to come and relax in the evenings.

    Daz and Neb had been arguing about something earlier, something to do with beard maintenance, and now they were providing entertainment for everyone by way of engaging in an ancient dwarven conflict resolution ritual. Or at least that's what they called it; to Kitti it just looked like plain old wrestling. Almost everyone gathered around to watch and cheer them on had some kind of bruise or bandage that marked their participation in the fighting, and Kimberlyn was the sole person ironically lacking any outward sign of damage. None of the bandits had died in the fighting, mainly thanks to their pilfered armaments making them a deadly enough force in the grip of madness that they cut a bloody swath through those who stood in there way. A few of them had expressed guilt over it, but most had shrugged it off as being the fault of the god who made them all go crazy that day.

    Unfortunately, the troubles of the past were far more easily discard than the troubles of the future. The fun and games were all well and good, but there was an unmistakable undercurrent of tension in the room. Everyone knew about the monsters and their captives and simply chose not to speak about it for the time being. Well, almost everyone chose to keep quiet. Crystal made comments now and then that disturbed the fun, but they'd quickly discovered ways to make him relax, or at least become panicked by something else entirely that amused the room. About an hour ago, the last time Crystal had mentioned something about tomorrow looking like a bad day to be in the city, Halaster and Kara had wordlessly worked together to trip Kimberlyn in such a way as to land in Crystal's lap. Their mutually flustered reactions to the sudden closeness (and of course the lewd commentary from their friends) had left Kitti and a few others in the room laughing to the point of crying. A little while after that, Crystal slipped away from the group and hadn't returned, leaving everyone else to get on with having a good time.

    Now though, as the light outside the window was fading, Kitti found herself drawn to a less pleasant mindset. That was the worst part of the last couple days. Work in the daytime, fun in the evening, and then nights wracked by worries and fears. As Neb pinned Daz and started calling for him to surrender, Kitti stood and made her way quietly out of the room. She knew she wouldn't be good company for much longer and figured it was best to depart before the dark mood of the night fully got its claws in her. She headed up the stairs in the entryway, making for the room in the spacious manner that she'd taken for herself for the past two nights since her home in the city had been one of those ravaged by fire, but stopped just before opening the door. There was a flickering light down the hall, candlelight coming from a door left slightly ajar. Kitti turned away from her own door and headed further down the hall, then knocked quietly before entering.

    Crystal was standing at a window, looking out and drumming his fingers along the windowsill. He didn't turn around, but he recognized her anyway, which creeped her out for a moment until she saw his eyes looking at her in the faint reflection of the glass. “Kitti. Not enjoying the festivities?” There was something to his tone, something subtle but biting, that she struggled to identify.

    “I was, but I find myself less in the mood for entertainment as night falls. It turns my mind toward tomorrow, and, well...” She shrugged one shoulder and let the statement go unfinished.

    Her meaning did not escape him at all. “Yes, I've been preoccupied with that myself. Whatever the monsters and their Lady are doing, it's going to happen tomorrow. I just know it.”

    “Rhea told me the same thing a few hours ago. I think I knew it before that, though.” Kitti pushed the door back to its mostly shut position behind her and stepped further into the room, grabbing the candle sitting on a nearby table as she walked over to stand by Crystal at the window. She had a guess as to what that was in his voice, and seeing his eyes up close made it quite clear she was right. It was anger, or perhaps rage was a better word for it. Just the emotion was mildly disturbing, but he looked all the more foreboding with those mismatched eyes and the markings that looked like a raven tattooed on his face.

    Crystal noticed her staring at his face and looked away, making an obvious effort to smooth his features. “It's not you, or the others downstairs. It's just...” He closed his right hand into a fist and dropped it heavily onto the windowsill. “I brought all of them into this mess, and now I can't do anything to take them out of it. How can anyone do anything against gods and an army of monsters? I think we've just gotten damn lucky the last two times, but this third time doesn't look like it's going to end well at all. It's frustrating. I'm used to being able to do something to get my friends out of trouble. I wish I could go out and kill those fucking gods and be done with it, but all I can do is sit here and seethe and wait for tomorrow. I hate it.”

    There had clearly been something going on with Crystal since the incident with the Lady of Chaos and Neos, and now it made sense to Kitti. Frustration and helplessness and anger were a potent negative mix, and unfortunately there wasn't much to be done about it. All she had to offer was a bit of hope, not that the news had done much to improve her own thoughts on the matter. “It may not be quite so bad as it seems. Apparently Lord Maldov survived the carnage and is still trying to win the favor of the city, this time by saving it from the monsters. He's sending people out with stacks of papers and wagons full of weapons to distribute to the citizens. I suppose he thinks that making the numbers closer to even will be enough to give us the edge.”

    Crystal was silent for a few seconds, then let out a snort of a laugh. “Untrained and frightened people versus horde of monsters. I know where I would place my bet.”

    “Yeah.” Kitti sighed and set the candle down on the windowsill. “Seems like we've just got to hope we get absurdly lucky. Again.”

    “Aye, we've been lucky to live this long. I've got a bad feeling that our luck has run out, or will be doing so shortly.”

    Kitti didn't say anything in response to that. She agreed, but saying so felt like admitting defeat, and if she did that then she might as well go hang herself. Instead she just patted Crystal's shoulder before turning to walk toward the door, though she couldn't resist a morbid joke on the way out. “Try to get some sleep, you don't want to die tired.” His only response was a laugh, a dark little chuckle that seemed like it would have been right at home on the gallows.

    She headed for her own bed with a heavy heart and low hopes for tomorrow. She would fight, of course, and try to give others some kind of hope if they were naive enough to take it, but Gencha's fate was quite clear in her mind. Barring divine intervention, they were all going to die.

    Allie stomped her way through the underbrush with her hand gripping the hilt of Godslayer tight enough that her knuckles were white. It was not that she was worried about an attacker, despite all of Rory's insistence that she had to be prepared for the destructive gods to send trouble her way sooner rather than later, but rather a ward against Rory himself. He was a truly annoying mental companion, albeit a useful one, and she'd grown tired of him for now. She'd learned quite a bit about the sword, and even though Rory had not fully explained all the ways the sword tried to protect its wielder from gods, she had discovered on her own that it was able to totally block mental influence if she so wished. The god had tried to get her attention in other ways to get her to remove the barrier, making lights appear to flash irritatingly in front of her face or to spell out words, but he didn't actually appear in person. Perhaps he was afraid that she would cut him down with the sword, which was fair because she'd thought about it more than once as he was droning on about convoluted plans for how to deal with various problems that might arise if certain unlikely things were to happen.

    The nattering god was not the only irritant in her life, however. The reason she was storming through the trees at the lead of the group was to get away from those who wanted to fawn over her or pester her with history lessons and advice. They meant well, she knew that without a doubt, and she could admit the same of Rory, but all she really wanted was to have some time alone to think about everything for herself. She still hadn't gotten used to the idea that some kind of great destiny had fallen on her shoulders. It wasn't as if she was actually anyone special, no matter what Rory said about about the potential catastrophic consequences of someone unfit for the job wielding the sword and how she supposedly had the perfect temperament for it. All she'd ever wanted was to live a normal and happy life, so being swept up in some kind of apocalypse averting quest was far from ideal. Having people congratulate her for apparently being the chosen one was like being bludgeoned over the head with it repeatedly. To avoid it, she'd told them she was going to go scout ahead to make sure nothing dangerous was lying in wait, and despite her lack of actually knowing how to effectively act as a scout they'd simply accepted that she knew what she was doing because she was the one holding the fancy sword.

    That was one of the nice things about this mess, she supposed. People had already respected her as a leader of sorts, but now nobody questioned her at all. The part of her that was always irritated with people objecting to very sensible plans was quite pleased with this development, though she hoped it was just a phase that would wear off with time because the deference would definitely become grating after a while. Her children and the other kids among the refugees of Eles were quite fond of Rose, and the little dragon had bonded with them in short order, joining in their nonsense games with made up rules as naturally as a human child would have done. Everyone seemed happy to have some kind of purpose now, too, even if it was something insane that was going to take them across the ocean into only the gods knew what sort of danger. Besides Allie, the only person who appeared at all disgruntled with events was Raven, who still seemed dismayed and confused about being wrong about why he had been made in the first place.

    The annoying lights from the god appeared again, red and yellow flashing in a spectacular array in front of Allie's face, but she ignored them and pressed on. Apparently there was some kind of ship waiting for them, which Rory had told her and she'd relayed vaguely to her companions, and the sea was not too terribly far off in the distance. The trees were already thinning out and there was a hint of salt in the air. If not for the fading sunlight limiting vision, she thought she might have been able to catch glimpses of the water in the distance through the trees. Those same trees suddenly seemed to come to a life of their own, bending unnaturally to weave their branches together and form a wall in front of her. The irritating lights flashed through the leaves and streaked past her, leaving trails of what looked like colorful fog hanging in the air as they sped away. Allie sighed and walked around the blockade, still firmly gripping Godslayer and keeping unwanted intrusions at bay.

    As she rounded the tree barrier, a familiar voice filled her ears. “You are perhaps the single most stubborn mortal I have ever had the misfortune of dealing with.” It was quite clearly exasperated, and perhaps a little amused, but also unmistakably the voice of Rory. But he couldn't get in her head, so that meant...

    Allie spun around to find a man standing a few feet behind her. He was very... plain. She could have passed by him in a city, or in Eles for that matter, and not thought to give him a second glance. Short brown hair, green eyes, and an outfit of earth colors much the same as what she'd seen people wear to go out hunting completed the strangely simple appearance the god had taken. It was only after a little while of staring that Allie realized there was something more about him, something that on first glance she'd dismissed. His eyes were almost like an Immortal's, like Grene's had been, eyes that seemed to hold far more than a mortal could ever comprehend, but hundreds of times more extreme than that. For a wild second she thought that he was doing some kind of manipulative magic on her, like he was trying to alter her mind with just his eyes, but she was still holding on tight to the sword and its protection so that sinking feeling had to just be what it was like to look a god in the eyes. It was hard to meet his gaze and hold it, but Allie was stubborn enough to force herself to do it.

    “You look a lot less impressive than I expected.” There was a hint of wariness in her voice that even she could hear, but it didn't detract much from the sass.

    Rory looked down at himself and shrugged a shoulder. “It's generally better to go unnoticed when I walk among mortals. There are too many questions when one goes around looking statuesque and glowing with benevolent divinity.” There wasn't even a hint of a joke in his voice, so Allie wasn't sure if it was dry humor or a plain statement of fact, but either way she supposed he had a point. “We probably shouldn't be standing around chatting though. Those lights were meant as a warning rather than just to pester you, you know. You should go back to your friends if you wish to be able to protect them. I did warn you that the Lord of Destruction would not wait long to try to slay you.” Allie stared at him in silence for a second, then rushed past him to go back the way she'd come. She heard him calling out after her as she did so, and as his voice slowly faded into nothingness she was sure his body would no longer be there if she bothered to turn around to look. “If you'd like some help in learning to use the offensive powers of that sword, just drop the shield and I will be happy to guide you.”

    Allie didn't bother to respond. She ran through the forest, looking around for any sign of danger as she did so. Everything seemed calm. Maybe too calm? She thought about it as she ran and realized exactly what was wrong: no bird calls. On her way through not long ago there had been an abundance of birds chattering at each other, but now the only sounds were those she was making. It took a few more minutes of running before she saw anything, and it was certainly not what she expected: a wall of dense plant matter had risen in the forest. It wasn't anything like Rory's tree barrier. This seemed more made up of thorny bushes full of flowers rather than of trees, and it appeared to wrap around into a complete circle as well. As she drew close she could hear hushed whispers from inside. She called out to them, not loud but enough to carry past the bushes, and the sounds stopped. After a few seconds of silence a tiny opening appeared at head height and Wyllow's bark-like face peered out warily.

    “Oh!” The dryad looked immensely pleased to see her. The opening widened rapidly into a proper doorway in short order. “We weren't sure you were coming. Raven tried to go find you, but some of the things out there shot at him and forced him back in here. Hurry, get in before they notice.” Wyllow waved her in frantically and Allie did not hesitate to hurry inside. The wall of plants closed shut as soon as she was clear of it.

    The very first thing she did was look for her kids. They were easy enough to find, what with Rose fluttering over the heads of them and the other children and apparently playing some kind of game with them that involved landing on their heads and darting away before they could grab her. Almost everyone was sitting on the ground nearby, but those who had weapons were standing near the perimeter as if waiting for things to break through. Most of them were staring at her now. Allie worked hard to avoid sighing at the frankly pathetic levels of hope in their eyes.

    Since Wyllow was already nearby, she directed her questions to the dryad. “What happened? I didn't see anything out there as I approached. Did anyone get hurt?”

    The dryad shook her head. “Raven got a bit scratched up, but everyone else is fine, just a couple bruises here and there. I knew something was wrong before any of the creatures showed up. I have a connection with trees and they do their best to communicate with me. I felt a sense of wrongness from the north, so Raven and Rose flew out for a look. They saw a lot of things moving through the forest, and by the time they got back they were only a few seconds ahead of some wolves that jumped out at us. Dire wolves, very large, very scary. Without the warning I think a few people might have gotten hurt badly. I don't know why they're waiting, but I know they're still out there. The trees can feel it, all around us now.”

    “Ah, shit.” Allie took hold of the dryad by the shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “It's me they want. Well, probably the sword, but I've got it so it's pretty much the same thing. I think they waited for me to come back so they could surround me and have a better chance of taking me down.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I need you to let me back out there, and then close this thing off if you can. Make it into a dome. I'm going to go handle this and I don't want to have to worry about everyone in here while I'm doing so. Can you do that for me?”

    Some of the people nearby looked liked they were ready to object to her plan, but most gave her that same dewy-eyed and worshipful look that made her want to punch them. A familiar voice seeped into her head once more, and she only realized as it spoke that she had let go of the sword and its mental protections. “A fine assessment of the situation, and a fine plan. I can ensure they remain protected while you handle the creatures.

    Allie shot an irritated thought right back at him: why not just destroy the things with your godly power?

    That would give away the game, and the last thing you want is for the Lord of Destruction to realize I'm with you. So long as he only suspects rather than knows for certain, he will be wary to act directly. You're not quite ready to deal with him.

    Why not? Allie nodded her appreciation as Wyllow did as she was asked, then headed outside the plant wall and drew Godslayer. She grimaced at the strange sensation that came with the sword, the pressure like fierce wind and tiny claws pressing against her whole body, but this time she just gritted her teeth and tolerated it rather than quickly putting it away as she'd done before. The plant matter closed up behind her as she stopped to survey the forest. Can't I just, I don't know, stab him or something and the sword will destroy him?

    If it were that simple then I would have taken the sword for myself and dealt with him already.” The god paused, and Allie got a sense that he was considering how much to tell her of the full truth. He chuckled at her thought. “Perceptive. Very well, I suppose you're not foolish enough to speak of this to anyone. The Lord of Destruction is... something of an abomination, as are his fellow gods that escaped their prison. I only became certain of it recently. You see, there were a few dozen gods locked away so very long ago, but only three emerged. Where did those other gods go?” He paused, apparently expecting an answer.

    They were killed, obviously.

    Indeed. But it was more than a simple killing. I believe that they were consumed. It's entirely theoretical, but I think it's possible for a god to devour another god and take their power. The Lord of Destruction is far more powerful than myself, though he always has been. The Lady of Justice was once his equal, but she would also be crushed in a direct confrontation.” There was a distinct irritation in Rory's voice now. “As if that was not bad enough, he's also clever. He knows Godslayer is a threat, and I'm sure he's been devising ways to work against it for ages while he was imprisoned and slowly working the locks loose. I've considered a few ways to negate the sword that might work, but I would not risk my life on it. The Lord of Destruction is a mad beast and would certainly take the risk, and there's a distinct chance that the risk would pay off. You would only get one shot against him, and that only if you managed to surprise him, so if he has some kind of effective defense in place that would lead to your demise and Godslayer falling into his possession. Worse still, I'm not sure actually killing him would be enough. He isn't even the strongest threat we face, you see. I am sure you recall the horde of undead entities that destroyed your home.

    Of course. I'll never forget it. Just the mention had hit Allie like a sack of bricks as she was reminded of what she had lost. She held herself together as best she could though, because there were some kind of evil creatures out there getting ready to attack her and she would not let them take anything more from her. Are they really that dangerous? Or, well, whoever was controlling them?

    Precisely. The one controlling them is an Immortal, or something more than that now I suppose, named Speaker of the Dead. He was once known for being able to commune with the spirits of dead animals and some attempts to reverse death itself, and he was once a leading figure amongst the Immortals, but under the guidance of the Lord of Destruction he turned his talents in a new direction. Were he so inclined, he could snap any god in half like a twig, the Lord of Destruction included. To vastly simplify matters, he's using the power of dead gods to give himself powers that are likely equivalent to or greater than what a god could do in the first days, before any of us died. I have no doubt that whatever methods the Lord of Destruction has contrived to protect himself from Godslayer, the Speaker of the Dead will be able to put them to effective use. Probably many methods simultaneously to be certain of it.

    There was some rustling in the undergrowth now, but Allie only paid half attention to it. Well that sounds positively dire. How in the world am I supposed to beat some kind of necromancer super-god if I can't even beat a cannibal god?

    Ah, you have no need to worry about that. The Lady of Justice is just about ready preparing a countermeasure. I am still alive to this day to give you counsel because I am quite skilled in operating indirectly and secretly. If my plans work out correctly, you will never need to fight a god at all. You'll be doing something more subtle and infinitely more effective.” Allie had a barrage of questions ready, but Rory held them off. “I'll explain later. You may not see them, but the creatures are massing to attack, just off to the left. They've got some magic users among their numbers that are masking their physical presence from you. Concentrate on the sword's power, draw it into you and think of casting it out like a net all around you, as far as the eye can see. You should be able to see through their camouflage easily.

    Allie stowed her questions away for later and focused on Godslayer. That odd pressure was, as she had found out with her little experiments with keeping Rory out of her head, something like the physical presence of its power. Or maybe it was more like the heat coming off of a fire? Still hot, but nothing compared to the flames themselves. Rory gave a little sound of agreement in her head, so she nodded to herself and focused on the sword. She'd been using the sort of excess energy from it, not the real thing, so first she had to fix that. She imagined gathering all the uncomfortable pressure and holding it in her hands. That was enough to make the sensation go away for the most part, though it felt like the sword was shuddering in her grip now. She pushed deeper, trying to sense that same power or something like it in the sword itself. There was something there, but it was like an apple in the middle of a block of glass: visible, but untouchable. She'd tried a couple times to push through that blockage, but it hadn't been effective at all.

    Ah, yes, I see your problem.” Rory made an image appear in her mind, the same apple in a block of glass metaphor she'd thought of before. He then made a little image of herself appear and start bashing against it with her fists. “This is what you think you're doing. You're incorrect.” The image faded and was replaced by something else: a woman standing in front of an apple sitting on a table. She was almost painfully beautiful, dressed in a flowing silver gown, and looked totally peaceful and serene. Another image appeared, Allie again, but this time she was holding a sword and charging wildly at the woman. She looked startled and brought her hands up, making a shimmering golden wall appear to block her apparent attacker, and the image-Allie ran headlong into it and was repelled. “You see? Don't attack, don't grab at her like she's a wench in a disreputable tavern. Be polite and respectful and...” The warrior-Allie vanished and the woman was serene once more. A new Allie appeared, this time walking up unarmed. She bowed to the woman and received a smile and a nod; she then pointed to the apple and her mouth moved. The radiant woman nodded again, picked up the apple, and handed it to the image-Allie. Image-Allie was immediately surrounded in a golden glow herself and started running around slashing shadowy figures that appeared out of nowhere.

    Yes, yes, I get it, you can stop the puppet show now, thank you. Allie imagined brushing the images away and the obligingly scattered into dust. It seemed simple enough. She'd heard enough of the history of Godslayer to know that the image of a woman was probably the Lady of Mercy, the god who had sacrificed herself to become the weapon. It stood to reason that something of her personality resided in the power of the blade. Aggression was met with resistance, but requests were granted. Probably oversimplified, but close enough to work with. Rory chuckled in the back of her head, but he didn't voice any disagreement so she gave it a try. She let go of the power she was holding clutched tightly in her fist (which got an approving little noise from Rory) and sought out the power in the sword without its guidance, but not aggressively, just looking for it. It snapped into her awareness instantly, and she understood immediately: it had been hard to find at first because of her aggressive methods, so even seeking it out had been running up against the barrier.

    As Allie reached out to gently make contact with that source of energy, which to her senses was now more like a miniature star, a bright little ball of light, rather than a vague solid object. She kept her thoughts as calm as she could, vaguely thinking about asking the sword to help her protect her friends and family but not really forming it into more than a general desire. A new sensation washed over her, a wave of prickling followed by a soothing warmth. She didn't need to be told that she'd made contact with the sword's actual power. It was remarkably simple to do with Rory's guidance (and she could feel him being self-satisfied as that thought crossed her mind), but she probably could have figured it out with some time and effort.

    With the power now within her grasp, it was a trivial matter to do as Rory had suggested and spread it out like a net all around her. She'd expected it to go out maybe a few hundred feet, but it spread out for what seemed like a mile or more and filled her head with a baffling array of information. It took her a minute to sort it all out and differentiate between the variety of entities she was sensing. There were the plants and the insects that at first overwhelmed everything, then some small animals and a few deer all headed away from her, and a few birds near the edge of the range. She perceived them all as little points of light on a map drawn in her mind. Once she figured out how to make those fade and focus on other living things she was left with a worrying picture. Off in the distance, at the edge of her senses in the direction of the water, she could feel a couple people collecting dead wood from the forest floor; those were probably people from the ship Rory mentioned, and they were far enough away to be out of danger. There was a little cluster of mortal life right near her, plus a dragon and something else odd that wasn't quite the same as the mortals. That strange thing was Raven, she realized after looking at it more closely, and that made sense given his talk about having been made by Jorick. Not far from the cluster of people she saw herself and a curiously bright spot, probably the representation of Rory's presence. Then all around that, thickly packed in every direction, there was a swarm of a wild variety of creatures.

    She picked out dozens of dire wolves creeping toward her, off to the left just as Rory had said. Once she knew they were there and she looked in their direction she could see them, hulking grey and white shapes walking slowly toward her, still much taller than her despite being hunched down as they moved. Out beyond them she could feel a grouping of some kind of creatures, humanoid upper bodies with snake-like lower bodies (Rory provided the name “lamia” as she thought about them), that were using magic to cast an illusion over the monsters. 'Monsters' was in fact the correct term for them, Allie realized. There were trolls in there, then some ogres, more than a few giant spiders, some undead things that might have been stragglers from the army that demolished Eles, a couple things that looked like wingless dragons, a wide variety of creatures that looked like they'd been cobbled together from parts taken from a few different animals, and more that she had a hard time fathoming like creatures composed entirely of some kind of ooze and a few things like giant snakes that were burrowing down deep in the earth. The things that had surrounded the other side of the plant dome (for she could sense Wyllow had indeed done as directed) were already swarming closer to attack her from behind, leaving her friends alone for now. It was a rather intimidating array of monstrous things that had all come to kill her and take Godslayer away.

    And toy with your friends in disturbing ways.” Rory's addition was far from helpful; he chuckled at the thought. “No, but it's true. That's how the Lord of Destruction liked to work in the past, and I'm sure it's the same now. 'Kill that one quick, then do what you like with the others.' It was his way. I don't mean to frighten you, but you should know that it's more than your own life on the line here.” Allie did her best to give him the mental approximation of an impatient glare. “What? Have you not figured out how to use the sword already? You were the one thinking it was so very simple once you got the trick of it.” She wanted very much to slap him, even though he was right. She knew what he was doing, too, and that made it more annoying: he was pushing her to do it for herself rather than holding her hand both because she would chafe under the strict direction and because she had more than earned a little bit of sass for her earlier stubbornness. An image of Rory's grinning face passed briefly through her mind, but he said nothing further.

    “Fine then.” Allie spoke aloud, mostly to herself. “I can do this. No problem. I'll just...” She pointed the sword at the dire wolves and thought about asking the sword to destroy them. That had an effect, but not the one she wanted: the sword did nothing, but the monsters definitely realized she noticed them now. The wolves sprang into motion, rushing toward her now that their cover was blown, and the others started running at her as well. “Fuck.” She had only a few seconds before the things would be on her. Her thoughts raced for a moment, but then she had a painfully simple realization: she was holding a damned sword, and you didn't make use of a sword by pointing it and hoping for the best.

    With her mind full of desire to destroy the monsters arrayed before her, Allie pulled the sword back and swept it in a wide arc in front of her. The blade itself clipped through the front leg of one of the leaping wolves, but it was the only one actually hit by the blade. That, apparently, made no difference at all. As she swung the sword it emitted a white light, sending out a wave of energy that sliced through the monsters like a hot knife through butter. It passed harmlessly through trees and other plants, harming only that which she wanted to harm. That was quite a relief because she could still sense more monsters rushing up from all sides. There was no time to swing the sword around at all of them before they got her, so she thought of making a shield around her made of the same monster-slaying power. It sprung up instantly, and a second later something crashed into it, but it was totally vaporized by its own momentum carrying it into the shield. A few more were unable to stop themselves from doing the same. The rest crowded around her and started howling and growling and making all sorts of terrible noise. Allie was just about ready to slice them up too, but she realized that would be a wasted effort. She already had this nice sphere of destructive power, so if she just made it rapidly expand...

    The white light expanded far enough to appear to be a massive dome overhead in the span of a single heartbeat. Almost all of the monsters were gone just that easily. The only ones left were the large lizards, which looked like they'd been burnt and had steam rising from their scales as they lumbered toward her, and those four giant worm things underground that were tunneling upward as well. Rory spoke quickly, trying to advise her, but she found she had no need of his words. It was just as simple as she'd said, after all. The previous attacks had been meant to wipe out a mob of things, so it was widespread but not very strong. Before Rory got the words out, and before she had time to even truly think it through, Allie acted on instinct. She swung the sword twice, sending far more concentrated blades of light to slice the lizards in half, then stabbed the sword into the earth to shoot four bolts of energy out to meet the worms. The ground shook for a moment, but then everything was still. The lizards had been sliced in half as expected, and the worms had sort of exploded. That part wasn't intentional, but it worked so she wouldn't complain.

    I suppose Godslayer chose wisely.” Rory's voice in her mind was dry and calm, but she could tell he'd been worried that she was going to die. “Well yes, of course I was worried. You do realize that most people in that situation would have died before coming up with the idea for the spherical shield, yes? It was impressively quick for a mortal. Quick as a thought, really, and you just started truly using Godslayer's power a couple minutes ago. You can let the shield go, by the way.

    “Oh. Right.” Allie had not in fact realized that she'd done anything impressive. It just all just came naturally to her, like it was the only rational thing to do at that moment. She wrote it off as just her being practical like Rory said when he first talked to her, nothing all that special really, and pointedly ignored his amusement in response to the thought. The shield was still expanded into a large white dome overhead, so she thought of letting it go and it disappeared immediately. Allie kept the extended senses in place though, and she could feel some people cautiously heading this way from the direction of the sea. They'd likely seen the shield and decided to investigate. That was simple enough to handle: she flicked Godslayer in their direction and imagined a path of softly glowing light extending from her to whoever was leading the group of investigators. A little drop of white light dripped from the tip of the sword and bloomed into the path she'd envisioned, racing out into the forest to seek out its target.

    And you're already figuring out how to use it for more than defense and offense. Fascinating.” There was no sarcasm evident in the words, but they still irritated Allie and made her feel like some kind of creepy mage's experiment. “Rude. I'm not a creepy mage, I'm a creepy god.” Allie imagined gutting him with Godslayer and got another laugh from him. “Have no fear, I've no ill intentions toward you, you should know this by now. I have another matter to attend to for the moment anyway, so I'll leave you to deal with the other mortals. Oh, and the Immortal. The Tamer of Beasts is with them, and she's not in the best of moods. Just call for me if you need anything and I'll return as quickly as I can. I doubt the Lord of Destruction will try anything else since the ambush failed, but I suspect you shall be able to handle anything short of him or the other abomination. Tell the ship folk you need to get to Gencha and depart as soon as possible.” She had a multitude of questions, but she knew he wasn't going to answer them right now anyway, so she simply sighed and gave him a mental shrug. Rory's presence faded from her mind, leaving her with a lingering sense of his amusement.

    It took Allie a little while to explain things to everyone after she got Wyllow to lower the plant dome, but there weren't many questions. Well, aside from Tari, that is; Tari had many questions pertaining to the nature of Godslayer's power and whether she could feel the Lady of Mercy's presence in it, because apparently it was a matter of heated debate amongst a small handful of scholars over the past few centuries, and those were awkward to answer without revealing Rory's presence or assistance. By the time she finally sated Tari's curiosity and got everyone all ready to move, the people from the ship were almost on them. Allie went to stand at the front of the group, right where the path of light ended, and planted the tip of Godslayer in the ground with her hands resting on the hilt to wait for them.

    Had she not examined them from afar with the sword's power, she might have been surprised by the three who stepped out to meet her. The man in front looked somewhat plain, similar to Rory's form in fact, but his eyes were quite different; he looked like he'd been through a lot more than any man his age ought to experience, and he looked very wary at that moment, but there was nothing else visually remarkable about him. Despite that, he was the one that worried Allie the most; his appearance on the mental map from Godslayer fluctuated in a strange manner, cycling between a normal human sort of light and brighter flashes that looked much like the Immortal beside him and Rory's godly appearance on the map. The Tamer of Beasts was a more interesting sight: she was on the short side with dark hair and wearing fur clothing with no shoes, and the wood of a fishing pole and bow showed over his shoulders. The last was a young Neko woman, a mage of some sort who had been toying with magic every time Allie had checked up on the approaching strangers, including one time she had been experimenting with the light path and trying to figure out how it worked. As they approached she was repeating some kind of training exercise it seemed: she had one hand held out in front of her with the palm up and was making a glowing cube appear above it, then split it in half and made the pieces spin around, then joined them together for a second before splitting the cube into four pieces, then repeating the process and doubling the number of smaller pieces again. She struggled with the seventh split and couldn't get the small pieces to cleanly slide back together, and given her exaggerated scowl when she failed it seemed she was quite displeased with her impressive display.

    “I fucking knew it.” The Immortal was the first to speak, and she accompanied the words with an accusatory finger pointing toward Godslayer. “I knew I felt it being revealed. Just like I said, the gods are playing us all like a fiddle. You lot were sent here just to play courier and deliver the sword to wherever they decided it needs to go, and you almost died doing it. Damned gods treating us all like toys.”

    The man leading the little group nodded slowly but did not otherwise respond to the Immortal. He dipped his head in a scant gesture of politeness toward Allie and those behind her. “I'm Ozzie. The loud one is Rissa and the quiet one is Kaga. We—“

    “Oooh, look at that sword!” Kaga had finally looked away from her exercise when she heard her name, and her eyes went wide on seeing Godslayer. “It's going like,” she waved her hands in the air and made a shower of sparkles appear, “but a lot more and a lot stronger, and it's also around, no, in the lady too! Wow. Can I touch it? How does it work? Is it just like a magitech weapon that shields you? Or can you do more with it? Did you make the big light we saw? Oh wow look at those dead things over there, did you do that with the sword? That's so cool!”

    Allie blinked at the girl and had to suppress a grin. She was like a diabolical mix of Tari and Rose, like the gods had worked to craft the most horrifyingly energetic and curious person they could manage. The long-suffering look on Ozzie's face made it clear this was definitely how she normally behaved. The man opened his mouth, probably to apologize for the outburst and rein Kaga in, but Allie spoke first. She was quite experienced with dealing with babbling kids and this was no different. “Maybe later, it's very complicated, it does a lot more, I made that light, and I used the sword to kill the lizards plus a whole lot more but that big light kind of vaporized most of them. It's very cool.”

    Kaga looked at her with a very serious expression for a long few seconds, and Ozzie and Rissa both looked surprised that she'd indulged the girl. Finally the Neko nodded. “You're good at answering questions. I'll ask you more later.” With her immediate curiosity apparently sated, she took to ogling the people behind Allie, taking particular interest in Wyllow and Rose it seemed, but she didn't say anything more.

    “I'm Allie, by the way.” Ozzie nodded in response, and the mix of irritation and amusement slowly faded from his features now that Kaga had settled down. Rissa gave no sign of response and still looked rather grumpy. “I need to get to Gencha, and I understand you've got some kind of ship. I know exactly what you mean,” she looked to Rissa for a moment, “when you say we're being toyed with by the gods. Believe me, I feel it all too well, but sometimes there's nothing to do but play out their game and hope for the best. I think the fate of the world may depend on it, as dumb as that sounds. Can you help me get to Gencha to do whatever it is the gods have in mind for me?”

    Ozzie nodded again, this time more slowly. “Perhaps. But we have to be careful. I'm sure you understand. I mean no harm, and I apologize in advance, but I need to do this to make sure you're not a threat. Adjourn!” He called the word out loud enough for everyone to hear it, and nothing obvious happened, but then Allie realized she wasn't actually seeing or feeling anything through her own body any longer. She could hear him continue speaking, but otherwise it was like she'd been shoved out of her own body and had no control over it. “Sorry, that must be uncomfortable, but I assure you it's the most pleasant option I had available. I used to use something similar that made it so people couldn't even breathe, but this is much safer. I'm just going to go around and check and make sure you're not hiding anything dangerous from us, and—“

    He took a step forward, which Allie could sense only through her mental map made with Godslayer's power, but he cut off speaking just as she realized something and acted on it. She couldn't move, but the sword's power was not affected, so it was a simple matter of using it to move her body. She lifted the sword up to point at Ozzie, which halted him in his tracks. After a moment of silence she did what should have been the first obvious thing and briefly shielded her mind as she'd done to keep Rory out; the effect was obviously some kind of mental manipulation, and as soon as the shield was in place she was in control of her own body once more. Ozzie looked quite shocked as she rolled her shoulders and cocked a brow at him.

    “I am holding the most dangerous thing here, right out in the open. If I wanted to harm you then you wouldn't have even gotten close enough to see me.” She took a step forward, still holding the sword out, and both Ozzie and Rissa took a step back. Kaga stood her ground and watched her with a faint smile on her face. “Now, I'm quite sure I could release everyone from your little trick, but let's play nice here. Let them go and I won't cut you to ribbons. Fair?”

    Rissa whispered hurriedly to Ozzie, just loud enough for Allie to catch part of it, something about actually knowing how to use the sword and the phrase 'don't be an idiot' a couple times in there. Ozzie eventually waved her away and took a half step forward. “Yes, that's fair, I think. Release!” The sound of confused and angry voices that immediately rose up from behind Allie was enough to let her know he'd done as he was told. “Uh, so, you wanted to get to Gencha, right? We've got airships. How about we give you that ride as an... apology for this misunderstanding. I was just trying to be careful, you know, never meant any harm by it.”

    “Yes, I think I shall accept this apology.” Allie was quite amused by how uncomfortable the man seemed. Rissa had started out this little meeting seeming angry and offended, but now something more like resignation was written on her face. Apparently being able to actually use Godslayer was enough to convince the Immortal that there was no use fighting the fate the gods had in store for her, and Rissa folding was probably enough to convince Ozzie of the same conclusion, especially seeing as the resigned look was even clearer on him. Kaga still just looked amused at the whole thing. “Well then, let's not waste any time. It's a long ride to Gencha and we can chat on the way.”

    Allie sheathed Godslayer and strode confidently forward, brushing between Ozzie and Rissa before they had time to move out of the way. It took a couple seconds for others to start walking, but soon enough they were following her as she walked along the path of light still extending into the forest, though she let it start fading away a few feet behind the folks walking at the back of the group. There was probably a lot more that could be discussed, but she'd spoken the truth: there would be time enough for that later. Now that she was finally walking down this damnable path of being a large cog in the machine of destiny, Allie wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and get back to her quiet and mundane life. That probably wasn't a very heroic attitude, but she didn't care much. She was going to do whatever had to be done to deal with the gods and abominations, but the sooner it was over the better, that was for damn sure.

    Holm surveyed the beach of white sand from a distance for a while. He was hanging suspended in midair over the sea, a feat that many mortals and Immortals had tried and failed for ages to accomplish without standing on something else that was simply lifting them up, but he'd never felt any pride or joy in the accomplishment. There was no point in feeling pleased with something accomplished with the stolen power of dead gods, after all. His target for the day, however, was a person who was constantly shrouded in her pride in her own work. The Witch of the Water had accomplished astounding things that baffled other Immortals, even those whose talents also laid in the realm of magic, and she would certainly have something prepared to attempt to deal with his arrival. The Lord of Destruction had told him about her trick with the sand, but that had to be just her first line of defense among many. Unfortunately, she was also very good at hiding her tracks, so it was impossible to tell what tricks were waiting for him. Spotting the field that would torch any undead entity that approached the beach had been simple enough, as had the other general wards that were placed around the perimeter, but the anti-god trap had been damned hard to find and likely would have eluded him if he hadn't known to look for it.

    There was nothing for it but to wade in and smash through her defenses as they appeared. Holm had already sent his horde of undead creatures away to wait for him, so he only had to worry about his own survival, and that would be a trivial matter. He floated down to land on the beach, and the very moment his feet touched the ground the sand tried to attack him. White spears formed of sand shot up at him, but they were unable to pierce the barrier he was holding hovering just an inch away from his flesh. A dome formed over him, trying to keep him contained, but he walked through it without any struggle. The sand proved only a minor annoyance, as expected, but it was still annoying indeed. He flicked one hand toward his feet and let loose a tiny dribble of power as he did so. The sand immediately under him turned black as midnight, and then it spread slowly throughout the whole beach. In a matter of less than a minute the shining white sand was stripped of its magic and turned dark; he could have simply made it into normal sand as it had once been, but the Speaker of the Dead found the total reversal to be more aesthetically pleasing.

    With the sand dealt with, he started toward the little salt-crusted hut that was the only building in sight. More of the Witch of the Water's defenses tried to halt him, but nothing harmed him. Bursts of fire and lightning out of nowhere were deflected by his shields, the sudden appearance of a seemingly bottomless pit meant nothing to one who could fly, a few nasty traps meant to suck the soul right out of a person couldn't manage to catch hold of his before he shattered them, and aggressive portals to pocket dimensions surely full of even more gruesome death traps would have swallowed a mortal whole but against him they were like toothless infants trying to devour a tiger. As he waded unharmed through the sea of traps, the Speaker of the Dead kept his eyes on the hut. He knew she was in there and that she could feel all her traps being brushed aside like gnats. The only question left was whether she would accept her fate or go down fighting.

    That question was answered as he neared to within a few dozen feet of the hut's door. The Witch of the Water, wearing the guise of an old crone, walked outside to wait for him, arms crossed over her chest as she watched. Holm could see through the shapechanging magic, he could see her youthful true form underneath the mask, but he chose to let his eyes focus on the mask instead. The appearance of the old woman suited her far better, old and scarred and somewhat disgusting to look upon. She was just as bad as Jorick had been, just as foolishly enamored with mortals to the detriment of their own kind, and she'd helped him in his most destructive pursuits. She was one of the primary causes of Holm's anger at the current state of the world, and he was going to enjoy getting rid of her.

    The traps finished their futile efforts about twenty feet from the hut. The Witch of the Water watched him clear the ineffectual killing field without any emotion evident on her face, and she was the first to speak. “Sorry about that. I only turn off the traps when my visitors aren't murderous thugs.”

    “It was no trouble at all.” Holm closed most of the distance between them, stopping just out of arm's reach. He could not feel any personal defenses prepared against him, but he hadn't felt most of the traps either until they'd gone off. There was something odd, like a string of magic floating from her back and into her hut. Some kind of magical connection? Did she hope to win with guile what she could not win with force? It was possible to connect one's spirit to an object and use it as a crude form of cheating death, assuming one had help to acquire a body to stuff the loose spirit into, but that was not a problem. He would be able to find and destroy an estranged spirit without any real effort. “I thought you would have put up some kind of fight. Are you surrendering?”

    The Witch of the Water smiled for a brief moment. “Not fighting and surrendering are two very different things. I'm not going to fight you, but I do not surrender. Especially not to monsters.”

    “Monster.” Holm stared at her in silence for the span of a few heartbeats. “After everything you've done, you call me a monster? You are the true monster here. You turned your back on your own kind in favor of violent vermin. You've helped to ensure that the rebirth of this world must be forged in blood rather than being a simple transition. You're a worse monster that I'll ever be.” His voice was cold and near emotionless the entire time, and it was a perfect mirror of how he felt. This was nothing to get passionate about. It was just a philosophical disagreement, after all, and who truly cared about the heaps of dead left in the wake of that conflict of ideologies?

    The old crone clicked her tongue and shook her head in obvious disappointment. “I remember when you cared about every life, down to the smallest ones. Do you remember when you gathered everyone around to have a talk about hunting responsibly? You called forth the ghost of a deer that had been shot with an arrow and left to bleed out, just killed for sport rather than food, and translated her pain and misery. A fox, too, the one I used for an experiment and disemboweled while it was still alive and conscious. You convinced me to put such creatures to sleep and numb their pain before I started cutting, and the others to only kill out of need and to do so efficiently to minimize suffering.” She sighed and shook her head again. “The Lady of Hope would be so disappointed to see what you've become.”

    “Don't you dare—“ Holm's words cut off as rage blossomed in him. His icy heart had remained solid and unchanging as she talked about the past, but hearing her name again, and from this monster's lips... He worked to choke back the anger, but his voice still came out full of venom. “Don't you dare say her name. Not you, of all people.” His fists were clenched at his sides and his breathing came heavily through flared nostrils. It was a struggle to keep himself from punching the old bitch right in the face.

    She simply smiled again, this time a longer lasting expression. “Oh, did I touch a nerve? Good to know you aren't completely dead inside. I would apologize, but...” She trailed off with a shrug of one shoulder. “It's true though, and you know it. You know she would weep to see you now. She cared about life just as much as you did. She gave up so much to join you in protecting it. Now you're a monster awash in death. If she were here, the Lady of Hope would—“

    Her words were cut off by Holm grabbing her by the through and slamming her into the fragile wall of the hut. It cracked and the wall buckled inward, but it did not fully collapse. “I told you not to say her name again, damn it. You're the reason she's dead, you and Jorick. If you hadn't gone and granted the mortals the gift of true magic and taught them how to use it against us, they never would have been able to rise up and slaughter Immortals. They wouldn't have been able to kill my wife and children. It's your fucking fault.”

    The smile didn't waver from her face; in fact, it grew wider still. “I suppose you're right. Many died in those days, but more mortals by far, and most of the Immortals had earned it for becoming tyrannical scum. There were some... injustices among the rightful rebellions. Such is the price of progress.” Holm squeezed her throat tighter for a second, but that didn't stop her from continuing in a more restricted voice. “You can't even say her name, can you? You don't want a monster's mouth sullying it, so you won't dare to utter it. You know I'm right about everything, but you're too stubborn and angry to do anything but rage against the truth.”

    Holm did not acknowledge her foolishness about his wife's name. It wasn't worth dignifying with an answer. “Aye, many mortals died, but not enough. We should have eradicated all of them. They were just weapons. Poorly made weapons that you saw fit to turn into powerful and deadly weapons. If we had killed them all after the end of the first war, everything would have been fine. We Immortals could have lived happily without their filth and violence. I am simply fixing a mistake we made long ago, nothing more.”

    The Witch of the Water made a strangled gurgling noise, which he took to be her best effort at a laugh. “Did you know some of your descendants survived? You had to know. Your son took a liking to mortal women and left many of them with his seed. A small fragment of your wife lives on in their blood, you know. I met one of them mere days ago, perhaps the last of them now. He would think you're an insane monster too. I suppose you're going to kill him and wipe out the last of the Lady of—“

    Holm's mouth curled up into a sneer as he clenched his hand as hard as he could. He'd warned her twice, but she just wouldn't listen. He could feel her windpipe being crushed and the bones in her neck start to crack under his unnaturally powerful fingers. Although her eyes bulged with the pressure and lack of ability to breathe, the Witch of the Water did not look to be in any serious pain. She looked... pleased. Self-satisfied and smug, even. It took Holm only a moment to work it out: she'd been pressing his buttons the whole time in the hopes of making him kill her. Whatever her little plan was, she had been counting on being killed then and there rather than being taken elsewhere. He could stop this, keep her suspended in a state of dying and take her far away, but then that would require letting her live even longer. Her existence was a blight upon the world, and he could no longer stand to let it remain. Her plan was obviously something to do with her spirit being pulled away from her dying body, whether into some hidden storage vessel or into some kind of magical trap she hoped would obliterate him, but Holm would not allow that either. After everything she had done, he wanted her to die knowing it was all for nothing. Rather than letting her simply choke to death, he conjured a nasty bit of magic meant to tear through her flesh and grab hold of her spirit, then destroy that entirely rather than letting it go to the land of the dead. Her death would be utterly in vain, and nothing could please him more. A grim smile spread his lips as the devouring magic took hold.

    Unexpectedly, the Witch of the Water coughed up blood and grinned at him as the spell made contact. It was a gruesome expression, with her eyes bloodshot and her teeth reddened, but that smugness was still there. The magic tore through her body in a mere second, then... couldn't go any further. Holm cursed as he realized the truth, the reason why she hadn't fought him. She'd played him for a fool and suspected he would try to eradicate her entirely, and she had prepared for it. A spirit was normally invisible to the eye, but as her sundered flesh fell to the black sand there was a golden glowing figure left standing where she'd been. It quickly lost its shape and became an amorphous blob, then the string of power that had been connected to her reeled the spirit away like a fishing line, faster than Holm could react. There had been no resistance besides her previously created traps because she'd poured everything she had into protecting her soul. It was a clever move, something only a person willing to resign themselves to death would even think to do, and it had been quite successful. Holm was furious with himself, but it was too late to do anything about it.

    He shoved his way into the hut as he wrapped himself in many extra layers of protection, working to shield himself from every conceivable assault that may come from a trap. Nothing happened. He looked around for any sign of a hidden storage vessel for the Witch of the Water's soul, but there was nothing of note to be seen with any of his senses, just a small collection of books tucked away into a hidden magical pocket, nothing that could have conceivably been used as an anchor for her. Only one thing caught his eye: a white pillar standing near the back of the hut. It was some kind of white stone with lines of gold running through it, and on top of it there were five piles of ash, one significantly larger than the others. As he stepped forward to investigate, keeping his shields up, the pillar itself started to dissolve into white sand with little gold flecks in it. There wasn't even a hint of magic left in the thing. Whatever it had been for, whatever the Witch of the Water had powered with her spirit, it was already in effect and he couldn't find even the slightest clue as to what its purpose was. He considered destroying her hut, but it would have been a petty and petulant revenge, so he left it alone and simply walked away.

    The Speaker of the Dead could not let go of his anger as he left the hut behind and lifted himself into the air. He'd let the Witch of the Water get under his skin, and now her comments were rolling around in his head, unwanted but impossible to remove. He wished he'd taken his time killing her instead of letting her go so quickly. He wished he'd been able to predict her trickery and stop it. Most of all, he wished he had just destroyed her immediately rather than letting her talk and get inside his head. It wasn't that she'd been right, for she was most certainly wrong to imply that the deaths of his wife and children were just accidental casualties that were outweighed by the positives, but... she'd planted a seed of doubt in him, and doubt was almost impossible to get rid of.

    It would not stop him from doing what needed to be done. He could have his doubt and his anger and still enjoy the sense of justice that came with killing the mortal filth that infested the planet. They were just weapons that had long outlived their usefulness, after all, so it was for the best that they be discarded. The Lord of Destruction would end this world and, with Holm's help to channel the total power of all the gods that had died, he would make something new without mortals to ruin everything. It would be perfect, and Holm did not in the slightest mind the fact that the Lord of Destruction would want to kill him in the process of making the new world. They had discussed plans for creating and maintaining new life, but he'd known all along that he was never intended to see it, for he had become too great a threat to be left alive. That was perfectly fine. He'd lived long enough to be ready to welcome death.

    The Speaker of the Dead headed south, off to rejoin his army of the dead and to press onward to Gencha. It would all be over soon, one way or another, and the end would be a relief.

    Grene floated high above the ground, looking down at the tiny white dot that was Diana sitting far below. Although she couldn't bring herself to do it, she knew it would be child's play to destroy the god. She had become something more now, something worse, and it made her feel monstrous. The only thing keeping her going was the thought that she would be able to prevent a lot more pain and death by suffering through this horror and seeing it through to the end. The Speaker of the Dead needed to be dealt with, and now that she could feel the disturbing power he wielded she understood why Diana had found it necessary to create another abomination to fight him. It was horrible, but there was no other way to save the world from the evils that wished to destroy it.

    She let herself fall freely for a while, wishing she could just let herself crash into the ground and be done with it, but she would only end up going through another resurrection instead. As bad as this unholy life was, it was better than having the peace of death plucked away from her again. Grene stopped her fall when she was only a few feet from the ground and lowered herself more gently to stand upon it. Flight had been tricky at first, but she knew she was as ready as she was ever going to be.

    Diana looked her over with a sigh. “Well, you're still doing that creepy twitchy thing, but I suppose there's no helping that. You've got enough control of the power to fly and presumably fight. Let's hope it will be enough.” She stood and lifted off of the ground with her own power. “Let's get to it. The sooner we get there, the less people will die. Rory's plan is moving along nicely, and the woman he found is clever. She's using Godslayer to speed up their airships, so she'll arrive before us, but she won't be able to do anything against Speaker of the Dead. If he arrives before you as well, they're probably doomed. Off we go, then.” Diana started flying away to the east, leaving her unhappy weapon to follow along.

    Grene didn't say anything. There was nothing worth saying, really. She pushed herself off the ground and shot eastward like a dart. She knew the stakes, and she knew she could not afford to fail. The final battle of the gods and their greatest creations was going to be fought in Gencha, and, above all else, Grene was looking forward to being done with it all for good.
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  15. Chapter 10 – Dead Men

    Dawn broke over a broken land. The cities of Rolpia and Contas had been attacked almost simultaneously soon after night fell, and by dawn they were ruins with only a few lucky people left alive within. Villages not far to the south of the cities woke to the hordes swarming over them. Tens of thousands of dead were left in the wake of the dead, a slaughter unheard of since the days following the First War, when the Immortals subjugated the mortals and many were culled.

    In the wake of this slaughter the Speaker of the Dead worked his dark magic. Corpses twitched and rose to their feet. Torn chunks of flesh pulled together into horrid abominations that shambled forth. The recently dead and skeletons of the past rose from graveyards to join the ranks. Slaughtered animals were not left to waste, instead becoming the basis for grotesque forms that would have struggled to move if not for the animating magic compelling them to do so. The ranks of the dead men swelled like flood waters, devouring everything as they went, and still the Speaker of the Dead was not sated.

    Off in the southern distance he saw a mountaintop gleaming in the morning sun. That mountain's shadow fell over Gencha. It was the last large bastion of the living still standing, but it would not remain standing for long. The city would be destroyed before it saw another dawn. His vengeance was nearly complete, and there was no stopping now until it was finished, one way or another.

    Kitti stood on the outer wall of Gencha and watched the sun rise. Bile rose in her throat as she tried to ignore the screams and cries from below. The battlements of the wall were packed with people, but nobody said a thing. There was really nothing worth saying. The monsters were arrayed in an untidy approximation of the formations a mortal army would have taken. Far at the back, sitting on what Rhea had decided was a crude throne made of bones tied together with gory pieces of flesh, there was a single humanoid woman watching over it all. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that this had to be the Lady of Monsters. She had taken her place some time in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, and by the time the sun rose high enough to see anything clearly the monsters were all in formation. Well, mostly in formation. Some of them had been waiting to handle their prisoners.

    Everyone had expected gruesome slaughter, but that was not the immediate fate of the prisoners. Instead they had been freed and left to run away toward the city. There was no getting around the monsters, and those few who dared try were slaughtered mercilessly, so the hundreds of men and women from a variety of mortal races were crowded around the main gate into the city, calling for help and demanding to be let in. It was a disgustingly effective way to use the prisoners, and Kitti was hard-pressed to find a way to handle it. Slaughter would have been awful, of course, but it would have given the defenders a measure of anger and fear to use to push themselves to fight. Instead, with all of them down there and crying for aid, it was perhaps the most demoralizing thing that could have happened. The f