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
    #1 Jorick, Mar 1, 2017
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2017
  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."
    • Love Love x 5
    • Bucket of Rainbows Bucket of Rainbows x 1
  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 Halaster 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.

    Halaster 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 Halaster'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 Halaster 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 his 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.
    • Love Love x 6
    • Nice execution! Nice execution! x 1
  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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