The Adamdar Spring

Part One

By R. Krommydas

Carcus by S. Baker and Midjourney

The Now, Before the Mirror at Xura

Brokk began to choke on his own blood, in a single perfect strike rendered almost incapable of drawing upon his immense magical might. A frantic, half-gurgled syllable accompanied his raised hand to counter whatever foulness had been aimed at them, just barely deflecting the opposing sorcery. Screaming his pain for him, Embla pressed her fleeting advantage and carved a pleasing chunk out of the abomination that had so wounded her companion.

Behind her, a living shadow flickered into the light, blades flashing silver. Death awaited anything mortal on the receiving end of those exquisite daggers, for they had been washed in the toxic blood of the nameless serpent-spawn of the Upstart. Even without such terrible weapons, however, the nidhgaraf had never failed to slay its intended target, no matter what odds had been arrayed against him.

His muffled squeak of surprise told of these odds, and had she not been consumed with rage, Embla might have paused to consider the meaning behind his enemy. There were not many who were able, even for a moment, to offer threat to the Gloryshadow. Yet from the corner of her eye she could see him begin a frenzied defense, tail lashing desperately as he actually retreated from the hard-eyed arratti woman that had intercepted him. Something had gone very wrong there.

Embla parried a wild strike from her own opponent, feeling rather than hearing the great glass gateway shatter to uselessness. In the smallest, sane part of her mind, she understood this meant there was no chance of retrieving what they had lost. Their gamble had not paid off, and the deal they had made with that unspeakable grotesquerie would now be a tightening noose about their necks.

Later, this would require another great struggle, for it had not accompanied them here. No doubt it had known of what awaited in this chamber, and had been too cowardly. Even the rest of their allies had been held back, diverted elsewhere by its low and despicable cunning. That Brokk had not seen through its deception was worrisome, but revenge would have to wait until his bleeding was staunched. All Embla had to do was slaughter these lesser monsters before they did any more harm, or somehow slip past her to deliver a more immediately fatal blow.

Underfoot, the ground trembled as dwarven and gnomish magic strained against each other, fresh curses and ancient grudges brought to bear in this arcane struggle. From where he now lay, trembling feebly and going very pale, Brokk managed to utter a particularly bleak incantation - one he had once sworn against ever using again. Knowing what it meant, Embla briefly fought to regain control of herself, but Sword was just as caught up in the battle as she was, and her thoughts were swept up in the tempest of its own.

The rest of the battle disappeared in a searing blaze, the light threatening to blind her through closed eyelids. Rock, metal and glass alike became molten and fluid, carrying Embla and Sword away in a river of agony. She recovered almost at once, but so had her hateful enemy. She snarled at this cosmic insult to Ylsmyr, knowing and loathing that the emotions were the same for them both. Embla raised Sword again and lunged with killing intent, staring as she did so into the perfect mirror of her own face.


Three months earlier, Belendale

The palatial gardens of Gloralion, smoke-stained, blood-reeking, after millennia of purity were at last mourning their burgled innocence. Certain bodies, too twisted by evil to be permitted the usual rites, were cast disdainfully into a pit and burnt as a single gruesome mass. The others were more reverently gathered. Too many were unidentifiable, little more than smears or pools of viscera as victims of the Serpent of Twilight, and more still had left no remains, swallowed whole by that most potent servant of the Demon Goddess.

For the elven martyrs, dynastic mausoleums were opened, many for the first time. Elaborate biers were readied for the gnomes who had given their lives in this foreign land, that they might be returned to home in appropriate honor. The Driddaren would instead be laid to rest within the borders of the Summervale as the oldest Davonian customs permitted, among their number the promising young commander Karl von Lanburg.

Under the guidance of their grim shaman, the Anarians fashioned strange stone altars upon which their dead were laid, and called upon their gods to claim the slain - a silvery hoarfrost bloomed on the bodies, swiftly covering them completely, and consuming them utterly, before fading back to the nothing from which it had been conjured. None who saw this doubted the honor accorded them, for the Frost Embrace was the most sacred and mysterious of their death rituals, of which only a handful of outsiders in all history had ever before witnessed.

Some thought was given to the matter of raising the dead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both elven and human factions outright refused to consider it. The former would now be safe in blessed Faerie for the rest of eternity, and the heroic death which had Davonian knight and Anarian warrior was one neither culture wished to sully with magical intervention. For their part, the gnomes insinuated that this was a matter for the families to discuss, and finance if desired, and were wisely not pressed on it further.

This calm pragmatism was not shared by all, however. When King Baranwë sorrowfully explained that his finest priest had been venomously dissolved during the battle, and that there was no other in all Belendale able to bring back one who had left not even the merest fragment of a body, Isolde had gone into a wordless shrieking hysteria and attempted to stab him. Her daggers came perilously close to succeeding where the Serpent of Twilight had failed, and again only the intervention of Ikit Gloryshadow saved the elvenking from a premature end. It had required several days and almost twice as many spells of restraint until the murderous madness passed.

Indeed, a similarly extreme affliction struck all three of those who had journeyed the longest with the disintegrated Aidan of Zel, and for none of them was it the mere profound grief of losing a soul-sworn brother. Brokk retreated almost at once into his mind, an atavistic reversion to his old studious obsession with a certain primordial tablet, from which he barely roused even to eat. Embla, more worryingly, spent more and more time listening to whatever inaudible words her disquieting bonded sword whispered, and would answer it in incomprehensible, almost poetic-sounding fragments of her own tongue that no other spoke.

The loss of the paladin had taken something from all of them, and tentative divinations - even when pursued by the mighty Valanduil, whose experience with the arcane arts was now perhaps unsurpassed on this side of the continent with the banishing of the Serpent of Twilight - could reveal no answers. A single bizarre image kept presenting itself, of the moon fractured into twelve pieces that repeated themselves to some distant infinity. Valanduil himself managed to pierce the veil of this mystery only once, but the vision he was granted was so terrible that his mind purged it almost wholly, leaving only a pseudo-sensation of things that crawled hungrily under his scalp in search of his thoughts.

It was when he mentioned this to Brokk, hoping against hope that it might jolt the Loremaster out of his self-imposed isolation, that the wizard did indeed turn away from the tablet for more than a moment. The profound horror that his face now bore, however, made Valanduil wish he had never pushed his magic so hard. Then the dwarf moved his throat and tongue, not his lips, to utter a thing which Valanduil knew he had heard in his last divination, but which once again his mental defenses parried.

At dawn the next day, Brokk was at the head of those leaving the Belendale, but not of those bound for Kale or Kelerak, or Anaria. Further west was his destination, to the true Wild Lands beyond, of which little was known and less was thought of favorably. Isolde and Embla went with him, as did the Horned Khan Tybalt who hailed from that realm, also the enigmatic Sag Zammaz, and even the Marquis Gareth du Rentes and the fell bard Malevoxa who some brave fools dared whisper was a handmaiden of the God of Death himself.

That evening, murmuring sadly of prophecy known only to him, King Baranwë dispatched another to follow them, and never again was Ikit Gloryshadow to step within the boundaries of Belendale.


Beyond time, Gennax

The spirit-quenching gloom of Carcus, most implacably miserable of the Hells, was lifted only in the vicinity of the impossible river of flame that passed through each of the Outer Planes in turn, metaphysically binding them together according to some ineffable design of Dekk - or, as his clergy themselves were wont to say enigmatically, some even more ancient and incomprehensible schema. Within the walls of Gennax itself, the river actually lifted from the soil to spiral through the ashen air, passing through this last redoubt of the God of Death. It carried no souls past the wards, however, for they had been set to keep even the Walker-in-Darkness at bay, and they barred all passage, benign and malign alike. With one extremely specific exception.

Vast chains reared from wall and floor to wrap about the minute craft that defied the incendiary current to remain motionless at a predetermined location. Skittering forms hurled themselves from the river-skiff onto these chains long before the two met, desperate to reach a measure of safety they could, to an extent, trust. Their shapes were many and varied, and uniformly hideous, for these were the mercenary-fiends of Carcus, the yugoloths, who alone could pass the divinely-fashioned wards of Gennax.

Yet this access came at a price of neutrality even the Walker-in-Darkness could not purchase, and the doom of these beings was already planned in His mind for this fact, no matter that it was beyond their control. Yugoloths attempting to traverse the Phlegethos with intent to infiltrate or assault Gennax were summarily incinerated by the river as if they were any other creature, and being natives to this plane, that meant their true death.

Aidan of Zel, paladin of Heshtail, watched their movements with disgust. He was some ten miles away, yet the sheer cosmic scale of the operation mocked feeble mortal notions of distance. Further, though the fiends themselves ought to have been too small to see individually, Aidan could nevertheless see every revolting detail for so long as he focused. His sight, and that of an equally disgusted imp that was keeping a vaguely mutually agreeable distance apart, had been honed to an impossible keenness so that they might bear witness to this rare event. The equally impossible thing which had done this was but a short distance away, idly watching the formation and dissipation of smoky patterns in the ash-choked air of Carcus.

Lessons of theology and ontology, not especially prized among the partisans of the Occupied Kingdoms, had been only lightly studied by Aidan during his training. He knew the basic structure of the universe, the domains and relationships of the pantheon, and certain fundamental truths underlying the nature of each plane. He could even faintly grasp the possibility of having ended up in the wrong afterlife, not least due to the manner of his death. Being torn apart by a collapsing portal intended to banish the Serpent of Twilight might have had any number of unpleasant consequences for his soul.

What he could not understand, and which he had found himself in agreement with the imp, was the existence of the thing which had greeted them on arrival. There would have been no shock if it had introduced itself in accordance to what it ought to be, a unique being fashioned by Grlarshh himself as a prized servant, equivalent to the Serpent of Twilight for Salystra or the transcendent arch-angels of the Heavens. Unfortunately, its claim flew in the face of all that was known about how the universe worked.

"I am Ylsmyr," the thing had said to them. "And I am very pleased to meet you."


Beyond time, Gennax

It looked exactly like how Aidan imagined Embla's people imagined it to be. A man little more than half as tall again as Embla herself, skin the color of molten bronze, gentle green-blue eyes that flashed a starburst silver, greying hair that grew into a shock of white along his temples, the lean and powerful muscles of a true wilderness survivor peeking out from simple cloth garments. It even smiled and spoke softly, unlike Embla herself usually chose, but when listening to it more carefully Aidan realized that its speech was not understood with ears, instead being subtly layered such that the mind ignored the actual sounds and divined meaning through more mystical means.

All of this was forgivable, of course. What could not be borne was the fact that Embla had told him of this thing, of this impossible figment of a barbarian race's collective imagination, and of what it was supposed to be. The gods were all known. Their places in the cosmos were understood, documented, explicable - uncontestable, even. This thing could not be one of them. Certainly it could be worshipped as one, primitive cults of personality and beast were known to exist among the savages of the wilds, but that. Might as well worship a stone and expect to channel magic as might a cleric or sorcerer.

On his own, Aidan would have scoffed at this obvious fiend, a trick of Carcus meant to drive him to despair or insanity. He was not alone, however, and the imp that had been drawn into death with him was treating the thing with far too much wary courtesy. If the imp died within Carcus it would merely reform within its native plane of Barathus, but rather than provoke the thing, or even fly into the Phlegethos and immolate itself in order to escape, the imp had instead become very quiet, almost submissive, on hearing that impossible name.

On the few occasions it had spoken since, the imp used a very unusual honorific to address the thing. Aidan was utterly perplexed to note the addition of the diminutive 'wa' to the standard 'tze' suffix used in the Dark Speech to denote any god apart from Vornoth. It was almost as if the imp was acknowledging a state of partial divinity, though not full godhood. Cosmologically, Aidan knew this to be impossible. There was no liminal state of being between the divine and the mundane. Something was either divine or it was not, that was just how reality worked. A creature could be mortal or immortal, dead or undead and formerly of either of the previous two; but if it had not started out as divine, as a god of which every individual was known, then it could never become divine - and equally, it could not stop being divine.

"That is the correct reality, true eno-" the thing calling itself Ylsmyr suddenly said.

And that was another disturbing facet of the thing. It responded to more than just spoken words and hidden thoughts, which any capable spellcaster could manage, but also pseudo-thoughts that were not even formed. Aidan did not need an active recollection of his theology studies to have them addressed, or to formulate actual questions of out of his confusion to have them answered. The thing was simply-

"-ugh, aware of everything all the time including before you yourself are," it interrupted its own sentence, and Aidan could not help but flinch as his conscious thoughts caught up.

"My apologies, I remember now that this sort of thing is very upsetting for your kind," the thing added in a tone of deep contrition. "My memory still to shall need-"

The rest went mostly unheard. Aidan contorted so violently his limbs dislocated and his organs ruptured, and the imp nearby let out an agonized wail. The words themselves were not the problem, but the meaning that was their foundation. A simple grammatical tense had been at fault, one that the mortal Aidan was not ontologically built to withstand exposure to, and even the immortal imp was pained by. In the next moment, their grotesque injuries were gone, and an even more apologetic thing begged forgiveness for his lapse.

Conversation thereafter, already strained, became even more difficult. Aidan did not know how long the three of them spent together. A century was the same as a second was the same as a year was the same as an eternity in death. He did know that he could not escape the thing. Once, or maybe a thousand times, he had walked backwards away for one, or maybe a thousand miles, keeping it in sight all the while. The moment he turned it was there again, the increasingly dejected imp somewhere nearby, and all the way that he had travelled ceased to exist. Distance meant nothing, for though it was entirely static within the vast and empty fortress of Gennax, it was also entirely malleable if the thing was involved.

Aidan did not know when or why he started to call the imp by its own name, Marchosias. He did not know when or why he looked forward to the next stilted talk between paladin and fiend as their mutual imprisonment in an alien Hell continued. Aidan also did not know when he started to call the thing by what it claimed as its name, Ylsmyr. He did know the why of that, though. At some point in the instantaneous infinity of death, he had come to believe in its impossibly liminal divinity.


Three months earlier, Laithostar

"Just so everybody knows, I am not going to whine about this!" Gareth said in a suspiciously whiny tone. "I understand exactly why we are splitting the group even further just before we merrily head into the Wild Lands to meet its uncultured savages. I merely wish to make it absolutely clear that I am not happy about it."

Typically, nobody seemed to be listening to him. It was always the way, he thought to himself. He gave perfectly sensible reasons for perfectly sensible decisions, and whenever people ignored him and suffered because of it, they turned around and blamed him for not being helpful. Every time. The Bandits of Bessel, the Comte du Nyon, the Karpaten Incident, Regent Gaidan and King Milon, apparently the entirety of the (surviving) Summervale elite now...

"Honestly, it's enough to drive a lesser man to drink," he explained between perfectly sensible sips from his waterskin. "Gods alone know how I've kept my sanity after all I've had to endure."

Not even Tybalt was paying him any mind. That was a worrying development. Gareth knew that the tiefling warlord was emotionally a child, prone to mood swings and naivety, only kept under control by his profound desire to be a good person. Removing him from his other cambion-bred brethren in the Wild Lands had been for the best, but the return to them after some years could trigger any number of consequences.

He missed Arlgand and Hamling. The former because priestly magic was very good at calming Tybalt during his rages and healing the injuries inflicted on all parties, and the latter because halfling wit was even better at keeping Tybalt calm to begin with. And instead of those two, he had with them the three broken wandering adventurers from out of the Occupied Kingdoms, and the wholly beautiful but also wholly nerve-wracking Malevoxa.

There was a tension here already. Gareth had never put much stock in the darker rumors of the bardic diva, but they had now reached the ears of the Erunian barbarian called Embla Aslaug - and she had a religious vendetta against the servants of Grlarshh. Gareth was always worried when religion entered into a situation. Morality was one thing, much as laws and social expectations were, and clever arguments could always be found to wriggle around those injunctions. Religion, however, was very different.

In his time he had seen full-on brawls between servants of supposedly allied churches of the gods of Law and Good; and here, what little information he had been able to gather suggested that these two women were on entirely opposing sides and at least approaching the other end of cosmic moral spectrum, if not wholly upon it. That he would be soon alone with the two of them and Tybalt on their way out of Laithostar, granted swift passage on an elven ship to the shores of the Wild Lands, did not fill him with anything except apprehension.

As he said, he understood the reasoning behind this further division of their already limited numbers. The sole member of this group he had barely considered until now was the gnomish sorcerer Zammaz, of the lowliest Sag caste, and with a sizeable chip on his shoulder about it. Some esoteric discussion or another between him and the wizard Brokk had resulted in this plan, requiring them and the lithe death-dealing halfling Isolde to part ways from the rest for a while.

Even now, the arcanist pair were finishing scribing the necessary sigils, ensuring the circle was properly tuned to their distant and secretive destination. Sag Zammaz had been visibly angered by Brokk knowing which sigils were needed, for it meant a security breach existed. Except for the gnomes themselves, nobody knew exactly where their mountain home physically was. That the access codes for the permanent teleportation circles within its walls had not been wiped from all outsider records was infuriating to Zammaz, and his mood had only worsened when Brokk refused to divulge his sources.

"So I suppose we just carry on and meet you at the rendezvous," Gareth sighed, and nodded to thin air as the three smallest members of the team stepped into the temporary magical circle and vanished. "Of course, why do I bother being sensible? The world clearly has it in for reasonable men of sharp mind and spectacular looks."


Beyond time, Gennax

Marchosias shook his head emphatically. "One of the most important admonishments is to never allow it to become personal. Our interactions are supposed to be strictly business. Performing an evil act for its own sake, or for one's own gratification, runs counter to the necessity for regimentation and structure."

"You tried to claw my eyes out whilst yelling at the Serpent of Twilight that it should have killed me and all my friends earlier," Aidan countered. "At what point in that situation, if you would be so kind, did our interaction remain strictly business, exactly?"

He tried to ignore the desolate howls coming from nearby. A foolishly opportunistic yugoloth with the general features of a decayed jackal had attempted to seize the paladin's highly valuable spirit, only to be promptly accosted by Ylsmyr. It was now being made an example of in a manner that Aidan did not wish to contemplate, especially since it would be left alive. Unfortunately, Ylsmyr was beyond Aidan's ability to challenge, and he was not entirely sure that his passive willingness to sit here and permit the torture was wholly his own will, or that of Ylsmyr.

"The destruction of the Twelve Moons Coven in the Ruin Wood marked the shift," Marchosis answered. "That was several years of manipulation wasted, and then any chance of salvaging the wreckage was destroyed along with the coven when those two guloguts attacked."

Confused, Aidan thought back to that time, trying to recall the specifics from so many years past. When it finally came back to him, the realization hit with all the crushing force of his own warhammer. "YOU were the crow-imp familiar of the warlock which hired us?"

"And ever since, you four have been the single most disruptive agency I have ever endured," confirmed Marchosias with a sardonic grin. "No matter what I throw at you, somehow you manage to survive and even improve your standing and your skills thereafter. Had we been engaged in an actual competition between our respective allegiances, I would be forced to claim aggrieved status. You seemed far too focused on tear apart everything I attempt to bring together."

Aidan interrupted: "All of it was you. All of it. From the Ruin Wood on, it was all you. Wasn't it? The assassins and the undead in Daven? That damned doppelganger in Fisherwood, or whatever the village was called. You warned the lichlord of Dessingrove about us."

This time, the imp shook his head somewhat ruefully. "I did not, actually. I thought I was. Turns out, Afej knew about you long before I even paid him a visit. He was hoping to have a calm and mature discussion with your dwarven wizard about various matters, without any actual investment of his limited resources or less limited magical energies, and then enslave your reanimated corpses afterwards if he felt like it. My interruption only forced a battle that he was extremely displeased to have had occur, considering how much it cost him. It will take two, maybe even three hundred years for him to replace everything that was lost."

Ylsmyr was suddenly by them again, even as the tortured screams of the fiend continued with rising intensity, a curious and knowing smile on his ichor-splattered face. He held up a dripping finger for patience, tilting his head as if to listen for some distant sound, and suddenly the screams stopped. The ichor vanished too, as if it had never been spilled, and Ylsmyr's smile became momentarily the terrifying one Aidan had all too commonly seen on Embla.

"The lich had best work more quickly than that," Ylsmyr murmured, his tone distressingly similar to arousal. "That and other impossible victories are evermore potential. Even She, Fairest Fallen, may be vulnerable from without."

Then this side of him was withdrawn, and he became once again the serene and companionable entity that was his clear preference. The duality of it was the worst part, so far as Aidan was concerned. His experience had taught that such a division in personality betrayed the existence of delusions and perhaps even deeper madnesses in a person. How did one deal with an insane god however?

Ylsmyr glanced in his direction, and Aidan consciously formed a thought: How could a mortal deal or interact with a deranged god?

And Ylsmyr answered: "Flamgart is less sane than many a mortal, even those whose minds are wholly divorced from reality as they can perceive it. Their place in the pantheon is not in doubt. Currently."

"What will happen if others believe?" Aidan asked, quietly, dreading the answer. "I admit I don't understand fully, but I can see enough of the pattern to suspect. Strange that we never really think of this. The numbers don't tally as they ought. Not for the Hells. It happened before, didn't it?"

Marchosias, already the smallest of the trio, seemed to shrink even further as the silence grew. The paladin was right, though in no way he was truly able to understand, or at the least being dangerously close to the truth. A truth that the godling Ylsmyr did not need to confirm, even through denial. It had happened before - the altering of immutability, the changing of gods. Marchosias himself had not existed in the time before time when this had happened, but the ripples of consequence had reached down the river of history, and there were some who spoke of things they ought not, and wiser others who hinted at things that they could survive when speech would doom them.

And as a spawn of Barathus, one name in particular had come down to Marchosias from the most distant past...


Beyond time, Gennax

Aidan had not been so distracted with his unsettling understanding that he had failed to see Marchosias' reaction to it. The paladin had almost immediately turned on the imp, demanding the explanation that he saw lurked within the devil's past. Naturally Marchosias had refused to speak, but there was no escaping the cruel irony of their situation. Both were aligned with the ontological principle of Law, and though Aidan was mortalkind - indeed, because he was mortal - this gave him the terrible power of choice.

He could choose to be flexible in his mutual service to Law and Good, adjusting the extent of his focus on either to suit his needs. Armed and girded with this power, over the course of many sessions Aidan prised apart the imp's defenses, whittling away at them with the perfect impunity of knowing that Marchosias could literally not tell a lie (though he might skirt around truth with clever wordplay) without having been bound to a pact first. Evil for its own sake was, as the imp had attested many times prior, anathema to the fiends whose essence was equally Lawful as it was Evil. In death, Marchosias was bound to truth instead of to any contract that might permit deceit.

That said, he was still a fiend with many thousands of years of experience at his back. Aidan could only do so much from across the distance of spirit that lay between them. There was a solution to this, but he was not so thirsty for knowledge that he would choose to pursue it. Unfortunately, that was the reason for the first visitor. Long after the fact, Aidan would wonder what other reason might have been found had he chosen differently. He did not doubt that a reason would have been found, though he fervently wished otherwise.

Ylsmyr had been unusually cheerful that day/eternity/moment/hour. He had distracted Aidan with talk of pleasant memories and hard-won victories, the struggles of which only enhanced the value of their success. Even the despondent gloom of Carcus had, for some brief time, seemingly lifted from them. And as they walked through the infinite emptiness of Gennax, they emerged from its halls and chambers onto parapets and plateaus, increasingly open to the ashen skies of Carcus.

On the last of these, a great tower wall reared up before them to some impossible height. It was plated with a polished sheet of pyrite, that in any other world might have reflected everything before it unto the very horizon. There was nothing to be seen there now, however, save for a dull ashen grey that might have been dirt as much as any reflection of the sky of Carcus. Yet the vast sheet was its own aberration here, faintly bright even in the Carcusite grimness. Aidan felt his stomach twist into knots at the sight, sensing danger far too late to do anything about it.

In the depths of this titanic mirror, something moved of its own accord. Aidan felt terror tearing at him, so intense that it overwhelmed the sacred protections that were the virtue of every paladin, and he collapsed in a spasm of paralytic fear. The figure was a horror of grotesque symmetry. Its repulsively bulbous body perched upon six clawed and equidistant legs, above which eight arms and four heads similarly arranged themselves. Only one face was turned to him, but there Aidan saw an uncountable series of his own image receding into twisted infinity, each a moment from his life frozen into stained glass. And yet, when viewed more dispassionately, these fragments formed a collective suggestion of a greater whole and hellish visage.

Aidan had heard tell of the peculiar iconoclasts before, yet this was no mere mirror demon. That kind of fiend had no particular ability to terrify beyond its natural abhorrent appearance. Further, they were usually about the size of the average elf or human, as opposed to that of a mountain. This entity was orders of magnitude more terrible, and more powerful, than anything Aidan had believed could exist - and had he not stood his ground against the Serpent of Twilight, the preferred tool of a goddess? He should have been able to withstand this also. This was-

"Impossible, of course," Ylsmyr said blandly. "But we needed you begin with. My potentially future associate Sarpedon prefers to avoid physical violence. And I am very sorry about this, but I must throw you to him. The risks that might emerge if he actually enters Gennax in the flesh are not acceptable to me or Grlarshh."

With that, Ylsmyr picked Aidan up and hurled him into the mirror, straight into the grip of the abominable immensity that lurked therein. Paladin and fiend disappeared, and Ylsmyr sat down, patiently waiting for their return. Behind him, Marchosias fretted helplessly, knowing just enough to realize what this meant. When Aidan was brought back from the torture, he would be changed. A very specific aspect of his personality would have been molded into a more desired shape.

"Correct," Ylsmyr confirmed, in a casual tone more suited to discussing the weather. "Aidan will be granted experiential insight into what he already academically knows about morality. A shame it had to be bestowed in this way, but obviously, life experiences are hard to come by when you're dead."


Three months earlier, Laithostar

A twilit mist covered the secret elven port behind them as the ship sailed into the bay. The bosun, unusually short and brawny for any elf, grinned like a shark at Gareth and Tybalt as the pair set about hauling cargo without being asked. The pair had been aboard before, when Gareth had first been half-exiled to the border of Wild Lands to either die or stop the rampage of Tybalt and the rest of his siblings. The return journey had been perhaps more nerve-wracked than the outward one, for Gareth did not then know worthy a restraint the promise of moral tuition was on Tybalt, and he knew that aboard ship was no place to be if his promises to the tiefling were not enough to keep him controlled.

No such fear this time. Instead, Gareth worked hard as a means of both repaying the immense favor of passage, made all the more notable for having set sail from Laithostar itself this time, and to keep his mind off the inconceivably greater threat that was brewing below deck. He had been astonished to learn that Embla suffered from seasickness. Not mild seasickness, but a paralyzing nausea that had her swaying and gnashing her teeth to keep from vomiting before they had even set sail.

Embla Aslaug, berserker and priestess and dirtcrawler. It was an interesting assemblage of qualities. None of them, by themselves, especially worrying. Gareth felt his breath catch in his throat as the possibilities returned to mind. The last of their company was also below, unwilling to demean herself with manual labour - and entirely incapable of being compelled to it. Now Malevoxa, quite possibly the most vicious exile of the Occupied Kingdoms and one who had even thrived there for a time, was in the bunk opposite someone who was very definitely the agent of a people who would establish their own kind of Dark Occupation.

Gareth, Marquis du Rentes, former legendary bandit Le Renard, was a remarkably astute individual for the most part. His greatest failing was simply a lack of understanding. He could not envisage the possibility of the cordialities currently taking place between the women, between such total opposites, between enemies so wholly opposed to each other's very existence.

For their part, bard and barbarian were exulting alike in their brawl. It was not a physical confrontation. Neither had the strength of body for that kind of war. But a war of words, of ideology and intent, was very much possible. Malevoxa had even leashed her tongue, so swift to cut and flense, that the delightful duel would last. Embla, nearly incapacitated by her nausea, was nonetheless able to meet with this enemy on equal terms, the sacred fervor that was Ylsmyr's Embrace focusing her thought.

In their privacy there could be no further deception, and each was wholly revealed to the other. Malevoxa let the black words wriggle free, affirming her blasphemous allegiance to Grlarshh. She did not quail at the terrible smile that was returned to her. Embla spoke freely of the inevitable deicide that awaited the Usurper and the Jailor both. She bared the purpose of her own faith in its impossible cosmic entirety.

Many a theologian would have sacrificed much to have witnessed this exchange. Most would not have appreciated the perverse affection that grew beneath the surface hostility. The slaughter of the Darkest God was a thing both parties desired, and united in deicidal faith, the necessity of their own gods facing each other thereafter was set aside that the two might rejoice at this shared goal. Malevoxa thrilled to think of the art that could be made of this triumph, uncaring that she herself could behold the works only in death. Embla instead considered the glorious irony of a murdered deity allowing for the God of Death himself to be cast down thereafter, despite his own necessary empowerment.

The antithetical duo spoke for many hours, a kind of insane mutual hatred festering within them, and promising the total extinction of their respective beliefs and realities. By the time they were too wearied to continue, and at last fell eagerly into the horrific dreams that awaited, they had become closer than any confidante or paramour.


Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Isolde dodged the first crossbow bolt that flew her way, forever after privately unsure how she managed it and publicly vowing it was entirely deliberate. The next four impacted against a scintillation in midair and were reduced to ash. After that, the Sag Zammaz belatedly spoke the passphrase marking them as guests, and Isolde sheathed her daggers so that she might at least act the part. Under her breath, however, she cursed the sorcerer and all his disgusting race, knowing in her heart that he had delayed his words in the hope that the Circle Guards would kill her first.

It seemed Brokk had some suspicion to the same effect, for he spoke a sharp word to Zammaz that, though it was in a language Isolde did not know, clearly had great meaning to the gnome. He glared back at his ostensible colleague, but thought better of replying when he saw the coldness in Brokk's eyes, bleak and terrible and divorced from the least semblance of pity. It suggested that the next scintillating glimmer in midair could envelop Zammaz himself, with similar effect as on the crossbow bolts.

"Of all the subterranean circles in the world, this is the only one good enough to teleport to," Isolde hissed disbelievingly. "Dragonfire take you, Brokk. I'm only doing this because you need my help."

"This is the only one I can teleport us to," Brokk corrected mildly. "Whichever permanent circles are deeper are beyond my knowledge, and it is to a very particular depth that I am forced to go. Believe me when I say, Isolde, that I am some orders of magnitude more upset about this than you."

Isolde opened her mouth to contest that statement when Brokk added firmly: "Because I know what awaits and why it is like this. Shut your mouth, stay close, don't kill any- no, don't hurt, that won't do either. Do not attempt or succeed in causing temporary or permanent damage to anyone without my permission; and I will explain in good time."

Isolde sniffed irritably, and looked away. The cavern was exactly the sort of place she never wanted to be in, a dead end with the only passage out being heavily fortified. The guards were hidden within the walls, with barely enough room to aim their crossbows, and themselves functionally immune to counterattack. Murder holes were visible, though cleverly disguised, along the ceiling. A painfully obvious fake trapdoor marked the boundary of cave and passage, so that a trespasser, believing themselves cunning for having seen through its disguise, would be inclined to jump over it.

A classic and bloody error. Those of normal height would find their throat meeting the razorwire stretched across, whereas lumbering humans and elves would likely have it rip into their eyes as they tried to pounce. The real trapdoor would be just beyond, and Isolde wondered what lay at the bottom of its pit. Other supporting traps were undoubtedly in play also, for why risk gnomish lives when inanimate materials could be the first line of defense? Isolde, like most halflings, would have preferred to risk gnomish lives, of course, but the world had shown itself to be blatantly unfair in most regards and so this state of affairs did not surprise her.

It would be reasonable to suppose that, had she known just who, or rather what, Brokk was going to meet with in order to carry out his mission, she might have reconsidered her position on the value of certain lives. However, when it came to gnomes, Isolde was unabashed in her open loathing. The way she saw it, gnomes chose to be the way they were, which made them worse than anything which was inherently repugnant like orcs or trolls.


Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

The maze was a nightmare of cramped halls and wide caverns, their path changing directions and altitudes regularly, with no readily apparent reason or consistency. Madness awaited any overgrounder who presumed to try to understand this region of the mountain. Privately, Brokk and Isolde suspected they could find their way back blindfolded. The maze was based on simple repeating patterns common to both dwarf holds and, on a smaller scale, hositan shires. Some differences existed, of course, that were not entirely due to mere cultural variation.

Runic traps were the most visible of the defenses, ancient spells renewed and updated by generations upon generations of devoted servants of the race. Within the walls, crossbow bolts peeked out from the murder holes hungrily, the living guardians shielded from nearly all harm and yet able to strike at any intruder with impunity.

Statues of gnomish heroes, from legendary generals and adventurers to bookish-seeming academicians and scholars, frowned down at them as they followed Zammaz deeper into the mountain. The magics holding these golems quiescent was almost palpable to Brokk, but he was also inclined to share Isolde's appreciation for the valuable stones and inlaid metals that would tempt the more idiotic trespasser to have survived this far into triggering their activation early.

The Loremaster for his part was especially careful now, keeping his hands visible at all times and speaking the passwords without hesitation or irritation creeping into his voice. If the defenses believed him a threat, whether by choice or subversion, they would cut him down as mercilessly as any monster. That he was leading outsiders here would be held against him for the rest of his life. That one was a halfling would be just as bad by itself, and Isolde was not helping alleviate Brokk's worries.

Brokk watched her carefully. There was something almost feral about her movements, as if she was on the hunt for prey. Zammaz could sense it too, but his expression hinted at him being a rival predator. The two of them were looking for any excuse to drag up the old pointless grudges again, and Brokk could still not understand why. Isolde spotted his frown, and smiled back, showing far too many teeth.

"Why can you not show restraint, Isolde?" Brokk asked at last. "Why are you so intent on aggravating our hosts?"

"Ever seen a group of different Dark Folk without the presence of a commanding officer?" she answered at once. "Sooner or later, they will start to compete for superiority. They are just too alike to exist in harmony."

"And all you have to do to stop it is obey your betters," Zammaz scowled back. "Or would you rather keep this wearisome non-contest going until we put you in your place?"

Brokk could feel his eyes disagreeing on which of them was going to twitch harder, and resolved the matter by squeezing them shut. He knew now that he had made a grave mistake in allowing Isolde to escort him for this necessary part of his journey. Something had gone wrong somewhere, and he wondered exactly what it had been. How had she bullied her way into this, when normally he could have resisted? Why was he so distracted? And what had broken in her mind to make her this way?

The trigger had been Aidan's death, of course. That was obvious. They had all suffered, but Isolde seemed especially different. She was so much the savage bitch that she had pretended to be back when they had first met, yet there was no pretense now.

When he looked in her eyes, a beast looked back. A beast hungry for vengeance against a cruel, unfair world. A beast bound only by its desperate cunning, its vicious intellect and a will as powerful as Brokk's own at its finest. The old gutter runner mindset was lurking in her head, dominating, subjugating the woman she wanted so much to be.

"Why do I feel I recognize this?" Brokk asked himself.

His thoughts went to his time in the Far City, and the primitive stories of the Kunese adjutants assigned to his regiment. Brokk bit back a curse, disgusted at how readily he had slipped into the thoughts of his disguise. It had been so easy, so comforting to dive fully behind the shield of another's personality. And then he saw that this was exactly what Isolde was doing. Shielding herself emotionally by adopting that terrible beastly mind of the drow-trained Zelish gutter runners. Which meant...

"Isolde, look at me, in the eye, now!" he interrupted her a bare moment before she started to lay into Zammaz for something else.

She turned to him, glaring, the look in her eyes fierce enough to make a professional soldier quail. Brokk, however, was hardened by countless years of brutal duty to the purpose of the Loremasters. He held her gaze firmly, and he was gratified to see the beast withdraw to reevaluate the situation. Isolde's expression sharpened to a keen, interested amusement. Brokk seized his chance.

"Power comes in many forms, yes?" he asked. "Forms such as knowledge. The knowledge that you walk among them, in plain view. Embarrassing them with their ignorance. You still have the hat, I assume? Yes, of course you do. How about it?"

Zammaz scowled at them suspiciously. "What are you talking about, Loremaster? You had best remember your oaths. Don't think I'll allow whatever you're scheming there."

Isolde smiled at him with worrying congeniality. "Oh, I think you will, most-honored Sag. We would not want to cause a scene, now would we?"

With that, she began to search her belongings for the abomination that Brokk accurately guessed she had kept. Magic was magic after all, and magic was valuable. If there was anything she prided herself on, it was her appraisal skills. And besides, this plan was so devious, so underhanded, so wholly unlike Brokk, that she felt obligated to follow it through.


Three months earlier, Covak

The elven ship left port almost as soon as it had docked and offloaded its passengers, which in retrospect was less of the insult it had appeared and more of intelligent self-preservation. Within minutes of disembarking, the small group was mobbed by the excited townsfolk, and for the first time in some years, Embla found herself no longer the largest person in the group. The humans, certainly, were uniformly shorter and scrawnier than she, but Covak was home to others also.

Tieflings surged forward whenever a gap appeared, bellowing eagerly at Tybalt, who pulled each into a crushing embrace. He whispered a thing to each and every one, short and private, and many let joyful tears fall. In these intimate reunions, horns clashed and tails intertwined, and the Unloved Children briefly shut out a world they had been bred to conquer.

As the crush abated, Gareth was able to reach Embla, who stood isolated and still a little seasick, to pull her into the open. She looked a question at him, and Gareth recalled that he had not actually told her of this part of his past. The broad strokes of the tale were known - an unstoppable tiefling warband rampaging across the Wild Lands, Gareth heroically intervening entirely of his own will - but the details were worth elaborating upon. He was just about to begin when a furious voice rose above the clamor, and getting closer by the syllable.

"You dare return? After humiliating me? After using me and casting me aside like an unwanted rag? I waited for you faithfully. So many nights I cried myself to sleep. Now you stroll back as if none of it happened. Unless this means you finally see it. The truth! That we are meant to be together! Oh my beloved, my lord, my heart and soul!"

All heads turned, Gareth's eyes bulging in terror, to the orange-robed tiefling now storming her way towards the huddle. She was short, initially frail-seeming until one noticed the feline grace of her movements, indicating lithe athleticism. Unlike most of the tieflings, her hair was a virulent purple-red and shorn nearly to the skull. This had the side-effect of making her otherwise tiny horns, sprouting like willow saplings delicately from her brow, stand out all the more, and knowing the eye would be drawn to them anyway, she had streaked them yellow in sharp contrast to her wine-dark skin and searing green eyes. Eyes in which only a lustful, wrathful obsession danced.

Seeing her approach, the Covaki, human and tiefling alike, scattered. This wanton display of cowardice disgusted Gareth, who was now wholly exposed to this raving lunatic without any cover or protection whatsoever. He attempted to place Embla between them, reasoning that this would be safer for the Erunian. After all, the pact of sisterhood that bound all womenfolk together regardless of class, race and nationality would be less fragile if he was not visible to distract them.

He absolutely did not let out a frightened squeak of protest when Embla calmly picked him up by scruff and by belt, and set him back down where he had started. Gareth saw the dilemma here, and realized that this was the best thing to do. Of course, Embla was a woman, but she was a very strange one to these frontier people, and it was likely that she would not be recognized as such. Therefore, he reasoned, it was his moral duty as a man to protect her from the histrionics of this aggressor until the confusion was over and he could step aside.

"How could I stay away?" Gareth asked, dripping charm. "Not all the fiends of all the Hells could restrain me. We have so much to speak of and so mu-"

He felt the breath leave his body as the tiefling slammed into him, hurling him aside through pure inertia. Dazed, confused, and not a little insulted by this turn of events, Gareth began to pick himself back up. From the corner of his eye, he saw the tiefling leap at Tybalt, wrapping all four limbs and her tail around him. From the corner of his ear, he heard Embla and Malevoxa laughing at his misfortune.

"Why would you assume that outrage was meant for you?" Embla asked between bouts of laughter.

Do not dare tell her, Gareth futilely thought, as Malevoxa readily explained everything.



Gareth ducked behind the stall as the guardsmen passed, cursing the day he had returned to Kale City. It was hardly his fault they had left in pursuit of the Hochsgraf before being certain no spawn remained. At the time, it had seemed the best thing to do, considering just how dangerous their quarry was, and how successfully they had exterminated all others who had fallen to him until then.

And yet not three days earlier, a vampire had been caught and killed in the palace itself. It had shrieked of vengeance against the Kalais savages who had murdered its maker. The descriptions had not been wildly circulated, but the city was full of rumors that Gareth knew the truth of. Now, in a twist of cruel irony, he was being hunted for having brought forth a threat to the king. Nobody knew if more spawn were out there, and if they could be drawn forth with the bait of Gareth, the risk to his life was a negligible cost inasmuch as the state was concerned.

So far, he had established that most of those who had aided in that hunt had already been interviewed and, owing in no small part to the protection of certain guilds and churches, were merely cautioned to remain cooperative. That weird herb sniffer Maurice Dubael was not among them, of course, because technically the man was no more. Only Gareth was left unaccounted for, and he had absolutely no trust in the government to safeguard him.

As the guards disappeared around the corner, Gareth breathed a sigh of relief and emerged from hiding. All Gareth wanted to do now was grab some food and escape the city. It was not perfect, but he could always return to being the Estian Bandit until his fortunes recovered. Return to being that legendary outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, that handsome vigilante who defied the corrupt and the odds alike, that valorous champion of justice and a woman's right to a harmless dalliance with him as their param-

"There he is! Finally!"

The cry went up behind him, and Gareth realized he had simply been standing in the open with the most vacant of expressions. He fled down the street, acknowledging that if he was captured now, it was entirely deserved. Judging from the curses and clatterings, the guards now in pursuit were not being especially gentle in moving the citizenry aside. Doubtless this accumulation of damages and injuries would also be blamed upon him - after all, if he had not run, none of it would have happened.

Under most circumstances, Gareth could have eluded his pursuers easily. However, he had gone without food for two days now, and his sleep was regularly interrupted. He had been on the move almost constantly for three days and three nights, and despite his heroic stamina and resolve, he was on the verge of collapse. So when the first opportunity appeared, he dove into it unthinking of whether it was the best opportunity that might arise.

Predictably, he nearly immediately realized his mistake as the smell of milk and cheeses filled his nostrils. A fromager's warehouse was a cramped nightmare of horribly sharp wires and worryingly sturdy blunt implements that would only make it easier to bring him down. By some small grace of the gods, the main work floor was empty of workers, and Gareth darted through the tables and shelves swiftly, hoping for the same luck with the rear area. Instead, through the doors he heard the sounds of gossip and laughter, and knew he would have no escape that way.

Exhausted, overheating, running out of hope, he at last collapsed against a wall. His jerkin was constricting, seemingly tightening about his throat of its own accord, and he ripped both it and the tunic beneath open, desperate to be able to breathe again. After a few moments, he realized he was no longer alone, and that the guards had caught up to him at last. Four of them, in fact, with the cool eyes of hardened killers and the easy grace of the well-fed elite. No ordinary town guards then, but royal ones. And then they bowed low to Gareth with the sincerest of courtesy.

"Forgive us this impertinence," one of them said. "But this is too dangerous a time to be moving incognito among the rabble. We must return you to the palace and the queen immediately. And if I may say, your Majesty, why did you come here of all places?"

Gareth could feel his mind emptying of all its responses, usual and emergency alike. He managed a spluttering wheeze that sounded vaguely like it aspired to be a question. As he fought to come up with a believable answer, the door to the fromager's connecting barn opened, and a sturdy woman stepped through, carrying a large pile of leather straps and harnesses. She paid the guards no mind, but did let her eye wander appreciatively over Gareth and his bared chest. Her ample hips swayed somewhat more than was necessary as she walked on.

The guards exchanged glances and Gareth reflexively smiled as innocently as he was able. Before he could think of anything to add, a second woman, slightly red-cheeked with the weight of the full milk pails in her arms, also came out of the barn. She seemed startled to see the men, but as the uniforms meant it was clearly no business of hers, she simply winked at them, and moved past. This was something Gareth could work with. He pulled himself straight, and took a step forward.

The door swung open again, and two younger milkmaids emerged, wrangling a large she-goat between them. The nearer of the two giggled at the guards, boldly ran a finger along Gareth's chest, and ignored the half-shocked, half-envious chastening of the other. Each guardsman failed to maintain a professionally neutral expression. One of them stared at the goat especially, trying to explain the situation to himself to be more reasonable than it seemed. The silence was deafening. Gareth stared sternly yet somehow conspiratorially into each guardsman's face.

"Not a word of this," he said quietly. "We are understood? To the palace then."


The Comtessa du Rentes, Sybille Maria Evangelina Dukalle, intercepted the huddled quintet before they had even left the barracks. When the senior guardsman attempted to protest, she waved him off and seized Gareth by the arm, all but dragging him away in a most unladylike manner. Then again, that she had cunningly awaited their return in a place no ordinary noble would deign to visit, and even foreseeing that the 'lost king' would be brought back into the palace even more clandestinely than he had left it, indicated that Comtessa Sybille was no mere lady of the royal court.

"I am not so easily misled as those fools," she hissed to Gareth as she marched him into the palace proper. "I can see full well you are not the king. Understand that it will be safer to pretend otherwise until I can clean up this mess. My brother especially is as like to kill you as he is to keep breathing."

Gareth instinctively pulled away, only to find himself dragged back into step effortlessly. The Comtessa du Rentes was terrifyingly strong, and he felt the wisest thing to do would be to submit. The glare she gave him for the attempt brooked neither argument nor complaint. She pulled Gareth through the outer halls and corridors of the palace at a frantic pace, avoiding both servant and window with preternatural ease.

Despite everything, he felt curiously invigorated. It was the most curious sensation. He could still sense the weariness in his very bones, the hunger gnawing at his belly, but it was if as they were mere hounds leashed to the will of a greater master. The will, specifically, of the Comtessa du Rentes. Gareth knew nothing of her, not even by reputation. She and her husband were governors of a relatively poor region, only recently arrived in the capital, and their political influence was practically non-existent.

All that said, Gareth knew what such people could accomplish. He himself was a product of similar circumstances, if he was truly honest, and there were more ways to go about one's business than through mere political chicanery. The steel in her grip and eye suggested that the Comtessa du Rentes was cast from a similar mold to himself. It would only be to his benefit to make an alliance with such a person. Mutual rewards for cooperation were among the perks of such unions.

As if sensing the path of his thoughts, the Comtessa released him suddenly. He staggered to a halt, caught entirely by surprise, and then gasped as she pushed him against a shadowed wall, where neither sunlight nor torchlight could reach them. There was an unsettling violence beneath her cold, measured actions as she pressed herself against him. A growing part of Gareth wondered if this nervous excitement was felt by those he seduced, and if ever he had acted such to make them more fearful than eager.

"I know absolutely of two strong-blooded vampires in the palace," the Comtessa whispered to him, and Gareth's eagerness shriveled to fear immediately. "They are superior to the feeble spawn which went mad upon hearing of what occurred in the Karpatens. In my investigation of this, I unearthed a scheme to enslave others, to enact a coup, to rule Kale openly and reunite it with the Occupied Kingdoms in the Sinfather's name."

"You must see what would come of such a thing," she continued mercilessly, holding Gareth in place when he vainly tried to wriggle free. "The Lords of the West vanquished a greater power before, heralding the collapse of order and the outbreak of war. If another such tyrant arises with these stresses already in play, they will inevitably be cast down and the kingdom will truly fall into ruin. Instead of a mere generation of suffering, we shall endure centuries of chaos. I cannot allow this. I need you to help me."

She pulled back slightly, staring wildly into Gareth's eyes. He could feel his resolve melting away under the intensity of that bright stare. He remembered the struggles he had personally endured, however, and resisted the urge to agree outright. This was an incredibly serious matter, and he was not a serious person, incredibly or otherwise. He refused to be serious in a world that seemed determined to punish such behavior even more brutally than enjoyment. Gareth had suffered enough. He was out for himself, and only himself.

Perhaps something of this reached the Comtessa, because her gaze softened and she ran her palm along his cheek in a comforting manner. Her breath quickened, cool against his skin, and Gareth warned himself that even by his standards, this was a ridiculously unwise decision to make. By the time he had decided to let her down gently and make his escape in the night, he had his arms around her waist. The hunger in her eyes was unfeigned, and Gareth could not resist such an entreaty.

She was marvelously cool and firm, a welcome relief for his burning desire, and the kiss she planted on him was painfully intense. He responded in kind, at last acquiescing to her request. A promise sealed, in blood no less, for in their mutual lust she had bitten his lip a shade too powerfully, and the rosy flush of her cheeks was as much embarrassment as it was pleasure.


The moonlight streamed in through the window, and Sybille sat bathed in it, enjoying the vibrancy of the night. To most, it was still and quiet, a soothing calmness that welcomed all to rest until the labors of the morrow began once more. For her, the night was a medley of action normally unnoticed. Even as a little girl she had adored its mysteries, and now as a woman, she considered herself kin to them.

Bats flittered after insects, their soft cries barely audible over the babbling brook below and the croaking cacophonies it held. A fox padded by in true silence, snatching up a small life from the waters to prolong its own. There were no lights over Kale but white-faced Tanarus and the glorious stars pinpricking the shell of eternity. Power trickled through for those who knew how to grasp it, and make of themselves something greater than mere mortalkind.

Aurelien cannot understand this, she thought to herself sadly. All his ambition, all his hopes, and he looks in all directions but the one that matters.

Once she had just been Sybille, until politics and familial obligations had made her a comtessa. She loathed the title. It was a rise in status, to be sure, but she had been happier without these new responsibilities. Her husband was not cruel, and their marriage was not wholly without affection, but Sybille pitied the naive girl she had been for daring to dream for less. The cruelest irony of her existence was that happiness was for the ignorant. She knew that now, and would have wept if she had any tears left.

The weeds of suffering had infested the world, and only by knowing the root cause could one cleanse the garden of them. But therein lay the dilemma, for by accumulating knowledge one also accumulated understanding of suffering. Having the power to do anything about it meant, by necessity, having to endure it yourself, to abandon your own hopes and wishes in favor of bettering the circumstances of others.

Sybille could see what was important, what was needed, what would work and what would not, and how she suffered for knowing how to bring about these changes. The sacrifices required were not beyond her, but trying to explain this to others seemed to be. Her husband had almost managed it, briefly, until the lure of the material had tangled him in its net. Now Aurelian gasped and grasped impotently after wealth and titles that did not matter. He was a true comte, she would say of him.

Her brother was different. He could see the same patterns, the same needs, the same injustices. Sybille had thought for a time he could be the key, until they had spoken more fully on the matter. He had been so rigid, even callous in his analysis. To him, the troubles of the people were not an insult to be avenged, or a disease to be cured. They were a puzzle to be solved, an equation to be simplified. He scared Sybille. She could see there was nothing he would keep from doing if it meant achieving his goals.

And right on cue... she thought to himself, rising and moving swiftly to the door. When she opened it, her brother was standing there with his hand raised to knock on the door and wake her if need be. His usual coldly apathetic half-frown, as if everything he saw was not merely disappointing, but expectedly so and he was now resigned to the fact that nothing measured up to his standard, briefly shifted to irritation.

"One day I shall not be alone, sister sweetest," he stated without a hint of affection. "Perhaps then you shall learn to cover yourself appropriately for a married lady. Displaying oneself so blatantly is for peasant whores."

Sybille turned herself slightly to one side, leaning against the door frame, carefully raising a leg and then arranging her arms such that her nakedness was technically hidden. She did so with the kind of insolent slowness that had driven her brother mad as children, back when he still tried to encourage her to action and before he had lost faith in people to do what was best for them without compulsion.

He ignored the provocation. "There is a rumor regarding the king. Both of him. I have suppressed it for now. I will trust you on this for as long as I can. Do what you must with all haste. Rest well, sister, and I will see you tomorrow."

Sybille shook her head at his retreating back, despairing at his attitude. Once he had been such a vibrant, excitable young man, full of hopes and dreams of his own, and so keen to help others achieve their own. She was still unsure as to what exactly had quenched his warmth so. Closing the door behind her and sensing the lateness of the hour, she returned to bed and stretched out. The emptiness of it troubled her, and she said so quite deliberately aloud.

"Do you have any idea how cold your floor is at this hour?" Gareth asked as he crawled out from under the bed. "Stone flagstones retain no heat whatsoever. So that was just your brother then?"

"Your reflexes are very impressive," Sybille commented lightly, admitting him back into her embrace. "I was prepared to lie and say your sleeping form was my husband's. And yes, my big brother trusts me in many things, more than many a brother might of his little sister, but you must understand there are limits to that, especially these days. Dear Milon is not as forgiving as once he was."


Three months earlier, Covak

During what felt like a natural break in the tale, Embla looked at Gareth closely, searching his face for something known only to her. He endured the scrutiny with only mild outrage, but the fact that she held him by the jaw whilst conducting her examination was a good incentive to remain mostly calm. She seemed genuinely curious, and it was only when she experimentally prodded the man in the gut that the goal became clear. Gareth would have been offended, but he was privately a little relieved that Embla did not see him in such a way.

"Is this what passes for general bodily attractiveness in these lands?" Embla asked Malevoxa. "His competence certainly warrants a good wife. Where he Risarvinni, I would be negligent if I did not marry him three or four times at the least."

"These backwaters are starved of the better classes of people, true," Malevoxa laughed. "But even in glittering Farland he would be quite the trophy. Too poor and lowborn to be openly acknowledged, of course. Valuable as a toy bodyguard, perhaps, to be passed around the noblewoman's circle in exchange for favor, or more probably, blackmail material."

"So long as he remained skilled in the bedchamber, and kept his wits keen, he might even have the opportunity to suborn the house and rule jointly. More than two-thirds of all so-called 'noble' families in Farland, and doubtless an even greater proportion in the Twin Kingdoms, are products of this sort of marital duplicity. Hence the lack of inbreeding so, ironically, common among other nobilities. Such as the Kalais."

Embla looked askance at the bard, whose smile had become a thin and cruel one. Her unashamed expression implied she had ensnared many through this fault of theirs, their passions and dreams reduced to mere fuel for her art, and their obedience guaranteed through risk of exposure. In a flash of insight, Embla realized just how Malevoxa had been able to survive in the Occupied Kingdoms so long and so brazenly. She had fished for victims across countless influential families, and threatened to rip the hooks free if bait and catch alike did not dance upon them for her pleasure.

It was a superb strategy, albeit one that reinforced the insidious nature of the threat posed by the deluded slaves of the Jailor. Embla dutifully stored this detail away, so that it could be passed on to the other Aslaug in due time. Every scrap of information could prove vital in the inevitable war, she knew. Each piece could be thought of as a weapon, where even if the Risarvinnae themselves did not wield it, they were strengthened by knowing for certain that the enemy held it.

Gareth wriggled uncomfortably in her hand and to her chagrin Embla realized she had forgotten to let him go. She did so with an apologetic grunt, though he was not able to respond due to massaging his slightly numbed face, wondering if a bruise would appear later. That was only a brief worry, however, because he had not been so distracted that he had missed what Malevoxa had said about Farland. His biggest concern was that, if he did abandon his onerous duties in Kale and establish himself there instead, he would end up on the receiving end of misplaced justice when the Lords of the West or some other self-righteous killjoys went and liberated those kingdoms also.

He was about to begin musing on the possibilities more actively when a familiar angry voice broke into his thoughts, and he immediately tensed again in fear of his life. Only a short distance away, Tybalt had finally lost his patience with the tiefling wrapped around him, and was now busily engaged in trying to shake her loose. The sight was not one Gareth had expected or wanted to see - and he had already forgotten the merciful insult that he was not the object of her interest - and he paid close attention to it.

Thankfully, Tybalt had not gone berserk. Despite having both his hands free and could reach his terrible axes, he was simply wrestling with his enamored opponent, and was visibly trying to cause as little injury as possible. That said, he was still an incredibly large and incredibly powerful warrior in heavy and spiked platemail. Bruising was guaranteed no matter how careful he was, and several shallow scrapes had already been made. Despite this, the tiefling woman clung to him all the tighter.

"Some people get all the luck," Gareth said to himself. "And some people end up like poor Tybalt."


Beyond time, Gennax

A darker shape began to form in the deepest reflections of the mirror, and Marchosias fell silent at once, with no small amount of relief. He had spent roughly seventy hours of Truetime in conversation, which would normally equate to anywhere between five and twelve weeks on Núrion, but here, in the company of the Elhteflin, most likely lay in the region of either no time or many millennia or possibly even both. In truth, the imp was not entirely sure if he really had been talking for any amount of Truetime, or if that was a mere delusion brought about by exhaustion.

The average mortal would scoff at such a notion, but the truth was that even fiends could become wearied. Devils had a particular vulnerability to this affliction when outside of Barathus, for the rejuvenating energies from beyond the Ontological Barrier were necessarily absent. The comforting clockwork ticking of Law could be felt in Cogiton, and the gratifying tidal pulses of Evil suffused Carcus, but beyond these neighbors, reality was abhorrent to the Barathean. Even the most stalwart devil might grow weary, even homesick, in a prolonged absence. Being in the presence of this larval divinity, this God's Phylactery, was also a significant stressor for Marchosias.

Then the image of the progenitor elderfiend manifested clearly, exuded an aura of indifferent malignity, threw the crumpled mass of a flayed soul out of the mirror, and promptly vanished. At once, Marchosias felt a surge of power, of excitement even, which he knew instinctively was due to the proximity of a vulnerable unclaimed soul. His mind calculated the odds of dozens of means of corruption and manipulation, arrayed in a vast table of compensations and requirements and rewards and dangers. It was as natural for the devil as breathing had been to the discarded soul in life.

It was also unthinkable for him to actually attempt any scheme. Even if Marchosias himself could theoretically discorporate - flying into the Phlegethos and letting the transcosmic River of Fire consume him was the simplest option - there was no taking this soul with him to Barathus. Instead, he flittered over and helped it untangle itself into proper and orderly form. Somewhat less than half of his essence roiled at the helpful act, subdued by the inherently lawful nature of this spiritual assembly, and the eternal devilish optimism that even good deeds may lead to evil if properly directed.

The soul was obviously changed by its time with the elderfiend Sarpedon. Where once it might have shied away from Marchosias, or struck out at him from reflexive habit, it now quietly accepted his offer of help and carefully used him for support whilst regaining its balance. On Núrion, this might have signaled a notable moral shift from staunch Goodness that a wily devil could further exploit. In Carcus however, it was evidence of nothing but neutral pragmatism, which Marchosias was legally incapable of faulting.

"I feel like I am missing a part of me," the soul said with extreme slowness, as if the very act of speech was a forgotten skill. "But it was not a part I should want to have? In losing myself, I am become more."

Marchosias knew what the soul referred to. The threshing and winnowing of souls was part of the process by which their energies were extracted, refined, and repurposed. Among the Hells, it was brutal and torturous, intended to break them down completely and accelerate the development of new fiendish entities, and interrupting it was not only unheard-of, but utterly pointless. This soul, then, was the result of just such a calculated interruption. Instead of being torn apart for fiendish benefit, it had itself been expertly refined. This was a thing ostensibly impossible, for spiritual betterment was the privilege of the living.

"Then our host clearly does have some plan for you," Marchosias said. "I had half-suspected you would be returned here when your torment was done. You were molded into a form more suitable for your eventual task."

The soul stared at Marchosias with empty eyes, faint recognition swimming into view before subsiding again. It was a far cry from the sharp paladin it had been in life, but that was only to be expected. Whatever suffering it had endured would take time to recover from, unless the Elhteflin made that impossibly instantaneous also. Marchosias led the dazed soul over to the still-seated figure, who was silently watching the meaningless patterns of the shifting Carcusite mists.

After a short while, the Elhteflin turned its gaze to them, staring blankly. "And who are you two?"


Beyond time, Gennax

Aidan was his name, he was mostly certain. It was difficult to piece his thoughts together, perhaps because he himself had only recently been pieced together. He knew that he had been carved up into almost infinitely-small fragments, each one a segregated portion of his soul - his beliefs and his biases, his desires and his aversions, his instincts and his choices - pared down for the most invasive interrogation. Under countless conditions and questions, each one at last broke under the torture, left indissolute for merciless reassembly.

Was he back in one piece? He could feel the absence of something in his mindset, an obstacle of some kind that had been neatly excised. Curiously, this absence was reassuring, as if whatever it was had been detrimental to him. A spiritual growth requiring the kind of surgery he had suffered to be removed. Aidan felt healthier, more capable of awareness - though his recent trauma yet dulled his senses somewhat - and even the Carcusite oppressiveness had briefly lifted from his soul.

He felt the presence of the fiend next to him, and did not recoil. By all rights, he should loathe the monster, and move against it in righteous holly fury to send back to its own Hell, yet he found himself apathetic. This scene, of an imp supporting a paladin, should be an impossibility, an anathema even. Aidan began distantly to glimpse just what had been cut from him. The more his mind came back to him, the more he considered his refashioned self, the less upset with the violation he became.

"You are Marchosias, correct?" he asked slowly of the imp, who nodded back. "What would you say if I told you, upon my oath to Heshtail, that I do not hate you for existing?"

The imp did not seem surprised. "That I am pleased to see one of the most infuriating mortal flaws is repaired in you. You are not a servant of Chaos. Such a hatred would be as illogical as hating fire for its heat or the ocean for its salt. As I made abundantly clear in our talks, our enmity is not personal."

Aidan could feel his strength failing, and sat down quickly before it gave up entirely. It was true. There was nothing personal about the conflict between paladin and devil, even in their own uniquely intertwined history. He saw it all so clearly now. It was possible for a person to fight unrelentingly against a planar trespasser, to be willing to give up their life in the battle, to contest their plans time and again without ever actually hating their adversary. And that paradigm-shattering realization had been the goal of his spiritual restructuring.

"I am a better version of myself," Aidan whispered. "I was made better by the work of a fiend. Nothing personal. Just another job."

Marchosias nodded, but still cautioned: "Being incarnate Chaos, demons are perfectly acceptable targets for hate, of course. Evil is not one big happy family and I'll thank you to keep that in mind in future dealings."

"I don't even hate the Dark Speech now," Aidan said in surprise. "We have spoken in nothing else. I feel fine. It doesn't make me sick to my stomach. I can even appreciate the post-Elhil lexical structure. Is this how Dark Folk bards see the language? What about..."

He rattled off a sequence of flowing syllables with sharp edges on each consonant, and his eyes widened in real disbelief. Much of the Mordularian language was unknown to him, but he was familiar with a number of battle cries and curses popular among the dark elves, enough to recall them now. A memory came to Aidan now, of a man wriggling in his hand, desperately fighting for the life being choked out of him, for the accident of speaking Mordularian to Aidan - when Aidan himself had been disguised as a drow and therefore it had been only reasonable.

"No problems there either, I take it?" Marchosias asked, and Aidan nodded. "Evidently Ylsmyr-watze wanted to see you cured of that particular sickness also."

His name roused Ylsmyr from his vacant confused staring, and paladin and imp could literally see the light of understanding wash over him, a silvery flash that spread from his eyes to illuminate him entirely for some seconds. The gloomy fog of Carcus even retreated, as if acknowledging the similar retreat of the mindfog that had gripped this liminal divinity. For the first time since he had heard it, Aidan actually recalled what Embla had said of the purpose of the Aslaug: 'To focus Ylsmyr and keep him from forgetting his duties.'

He remembered other things that Embla had said, and ever-increasing instances of her compromising as their time together had lengthened. There was a possibility rising to the front of his mind, but it was crude and unformed and he needed more time to recover himself. Once he was ready, he would act accordingly.