The Adamdar Spring

Part Two

By R. Krommydas

 by S. Baker and Midjourney

PREVIOUS CHAPTER

Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Brokk could not help but flinch at the urban cacophony that crashed against them upon entering the vast chamber, though it was but the least fraction of the trader hub of Sheltinnobortanu. This was a honeycomb of innovation and mercantilism, where enfranchised guild merchants rubbed shoulders with unlicensed independents and unscrupulous or even criminal opportunists alike, in a riotous pandemonium that answered only to the unshakeable authority of coin. In pursuit of this authority, outsider though he was, nevertheless Brokk found himself beset on all sides by cries for his attention and interest.

Offers bombarded him from across the spectrum: rare goods, exotic luxuries, commonplace necessities, unusual items, gifts, treats, artworks, arms and armors, alchemic reagents, and so much more. Nothing in his long experience had prepared the ancient wizard for such a spectacle of sight and sound, and though he was as stolid as any dwarf could hope - if not more so, considering the cursed nature of his age - Brokk naturally felt the singularly geriatric fear of heaving crowds and being overlooked in them.

At his side, an imperious gnomish priestess strode through the chaos with unassailable confidence, her clerical finery outdone only by a hideously garish hat that no sane creature would wish to wear in public. That is to say, Brokk found it garish and ridiculous to the extreme, but among the tendenarruk such an oddity did not draw even the most suspicious or judgmental eye. Indeed, it was not even the most ludicrous accessory visible, and through that Brokk deduced that the hat had been of gnomish design before it found its way to the conspirator from whose corpse Isolde had looted it.

As Brokk had hoped, her hostility had abated almost the instant the hat touched her head. She was having too much fun deceiving actual gnomes into believing that she was one of them. Whatever irrational hate she held for these curious, but ultimately, decent people was not so great that she couldn't pretend to be one for her own amusement. The illusion was a meagre one, magically speaking, which made it all the more potent. It was so simple, so subtle, that practically nothing about its recipient had actually changed and thus would not be questioned by those who saw it.

Though there was always the chance of things getting too far out of hand. Isolde had actively stepped away from Brokk and Zammaz on four separate occasions already, initiating conversation with a mere passerby, for no reason beyond reinforcing her view that gnomes were too stupid to see through an illusion of this kind. Or perhaps there was more to it, Brokk conceded to himself, as Zammaz ground his teeth when she left for the fifth time.

Zammaz was of the Sag caste, traditionally the 'lowest' in gnomish society. Whilst the Pal were equally likely to live in hidden exclaves beyond Sheltinnobortanu, they were historically seen as the more conservative of the two, and thus were unofficially elevated in the hierarchy. Isolde, whether by freak accident or malicious intent (and as he knew her, Brokk had no choice but to believe it was due to the latter), had worn the illusion of a Bal gnome. For a Sag to question a Bal, the highest and most influential of the castes, was unthinkable even at its most practical.

She is still taunting him, Brokk thought to himself. And in one of the cruelest of ways. All his achievements and expertise are counted for nothing against the mere accident of his birth. By Dhurli, Isolde, why were you fashioned in such a way?

Whatever Isolde might have answered to such a question were it asked of her was irrelevant. There were more important matters to attend to first, and more and more Brokk dreaded the meeting that was to come. The blind seer Tarsus had spoken of this by way of prophecy. Brokk should have known such a thing could only end in tears, but he had not expected it to develop in the way that it had.

Long ago, he had heard tell of an elven saying, mocking dwarves as ignorant of the wider world, to such an extreme of even the existence of sky and stars, deriding them as 'having dug too deep'. Yet it had been the dwarves who had known better and the gnomes who had ignored these warnings. When the truth came out, relations between the races had not merely deteriorated, but outright shattered for a time. Now Brokk was making the journey to the same depths that ended a centuries-old friendship, to bargain in much the same way as had preceded the cause of that end.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Had he been an outsider looking at himself, Brokk would have been forced to admit his behavior over the last few years had been erratic. His ever-more rapid degeneration into obsession, to the extent of being utterly unaware of his surroundings even at the risk of his life, had been but the first symptom. His slide into what was, effectively, a form of insanity had only been accelerated by that horrific scene at Mavarra, and even his body had only just survived the backlash from the necrotic artifact hidden at Arden.

The banishing of the demon at Fisherman's Solace, for which he had not been prepared and which had required similar effort, had marked a brief reversal of his mental state. There had been some entire days when he had barely thought of that damned primordial tablet. His health improved rapidly thereafter, no denying that. Brokk recalled he had not felt more than common exhaustion after their defeat at Dessingrove, or even after their victory at the Dreaming Pit.

And yet, after all they had been through, it had been the work of a single moment to undo all his progress. Aidan dead, and the whole group fell apart overnight. It was as if some critical foundation stone had been removed, bringing down the entire structure on which it was supported. Brokk had no qualms about admitting he was terrified. These moments of true lucidity were few and far between - already, he could feel the urge to take out the tablet (oh and how its weight grew in his mind also!) and struggle again to decipher its mysteries.

As bad as this was, worse still was the sudden realization that he had become separated from Isolde and Zammaz. Frantically, he looked about him, spotting them too far and too late to be able to intervene. Isolde's disguise had been taken as genuine by just the wrong person, and their very public location had meant that her order to Zammaz could not be easily or safely disregarded. Only the blatant illegality of the act prevented the sorcerer from unleashing his power. Brokk, physically isolated and mentally off-kilter, was the perfect target, and in no time at all, the first hand closed about his arm in false camaraderie.

"Well hello there, my good fellow!" the merchant exclaimed, pulling at Brokk quite unashamedly firmly, considering the wizard's obvious age and fragility. "The thousand blessings of Barlifandorf are upon you this day. Why else would you find yourself here at this most fortuitous of moments? And it is exactly the problem of time that I can solve for you What a problem it is too!"

Naturally, Brokk attempted to protest. His words were not merely ignored, but wholly overridden, and he struggled to keep himself on both feet as the gnome effectively dragged him to the stall. Either oblivious to, or more probably uncaring of, his predicament, the merchant waved an arm at the bizarre construction on display. At no point did he release his grip on Brokk's arm, fully intent on keeping his customer base a captive one.

"There you are, trying to go about your business, when all of a sudden, you are in need of a culinary delight to amaze and impress. And why is it always when you are at your busiest that you are so thoughtlessly inconvenienced by having to oversee the creation of such a repast? Who has time in a single day to host guests properly as well as run a proper household? Behold!"

Brokk immediately guessed the intent behind the item, and for the briefest moment was in agreement with Isolde regarding the gnomish race as a whole. It was cubic with a hinged glass-fronted door, the body likely made from a silicate alloy - ideal for being both cheap and shiny - and a set of three stone (That is a ceramic designed to appear crystalline, Brokk realized) valves were arranged vertically on its right side. The exterior was elaborately threaded with brilliant rainbowed wiring that Brokk guessed was some hideous metallurgical hybrid, almost certainly of duralumin and nichrome. The uses of these alloys were incredibly specific.

"Patented, renowned, dare I say necessary, Crystalwave Adjustable Variation Module, entering its fabulous fourth iteration of excellence. Seventeen guild commendations independently awarded just this year. Now with five further settings for combinatorial splendor. All the old classics included for convenience at no extra cost, packaged with the all-new Chaos Glory option for the most discerning epicure. If I had to explain it to someone, they are not yet ready."

Brokk angled his head to look through the glass. Faint grooves on the inside of the cube and the tiny angular protuberance at the far end of each, all that could be seen of the tourmalines within, confirmed his assumption. Much like the alloyed wires, tourmaline had a truly unique property among precious stones. Some idiot gnome, defying reason and practicality, had decided to invent and market a small lightning-fueled gemstone oven for the apparent sole purpose of heating food quickly.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Covak

Tybalt was now silent, save for grunts of effort, as he battled futilely to peel off his unwanted suitor. Impressively, for all that she was significantly smaller, she clung to him like a limpet, and no amount of force seemed enough to remove more than one limb at a time. Her entreaties were increasingly sounding more like ultimatums and despite the genuine threats that Tybalt had made at the outset of this struggle, not even his fellow tieflings, supposedly followers of his as the great and terrible Horned Khan, were paying any mind to it.

Embla, on the other hand, was torn between that spectacle and Malevoxa's entertaining humiliation of Gareth, and though it was rude, she chose to interrupt the telling of the tale at what felt was a narratively appropriate moment. The Maestra spat a syllable out of vindictive reflex, but graciously swallowed the rest of them before they became a true spell. After all, she had indeed reached a natural conclusion to a part of her retelling, and the recognition of this was enough excuse to allow for a brief pause to hear what Embla had to say.

"Do I remember wrongly, or are all these tieflings not of the same cambion?" she asked now.

"They all share the same mother," Malevoxa confirmed. "The smallfolk seem to believe all cambions are male, no doubt because they make for better stories to horrify child and adult alike. Less forgivable is the tendency for even the more educated to forget that there are as many female as male cambions. If anything, the rapes they commit are of a different invasive kind, though no less scarring. Minds chained to their wills tend not to survive in the cambion's absence for long."

She looked faintly wistful for a moment. "Performances were held whenever an emissary of Lust was honored in the Far City. Weeks in advance, pleasure fiends and cambions indulged their appetites with enemies of the state. The traitors would be paraded publicly thereafter, teased with the promise of being returned to their 'loved' ones. Such a complete degradation of the spirit was remarkable to see. The choreography was lacking in raw talent, yet as the Kalais might say, it had a certain avant-garde panache."

Gareth gagged involuntarily, picturing the grotesque scene. Malevoxa just smiled thinly, her thoughts wandering back to those better days in the heartland of civilization and opulence. Once she had been a paragon of artists, as feared as she was loved, able to command legions of desperate students in the ways of beauty. Once she had been so powerful that even the Sinful Lords were satirized in her work.

My deliciously sensuous Domina Papilio was by far my greatest achievement at that time, she recalled fondly. How the chorus would delight my audiences! The fragility of their tremolandi was sublime. Uttermost fear kept at bay solely through discipline, through conviction of safety in excellence. Would that I had access to more such flowers of Yrrkune. Each blossom made all the more beautiful by its impermanence...

Whilst Malevoxa nurtured dark thoughts, Embla had been thinking on what she was supposed to do in this situation. It did not take her long to come to a decision. The tieflings were not of the Risarvinnae, but there was potential here if Tybalt was typical of his kind, and Embla was not so ignorant as to believe that mere race differences could keep someone from living properly.

"We had best invite this woman along for the rest of our journey," she declared. "Whilst I have the opportunity, I will attempt to educate her in the ways of righteousness. As Aslaug, one of my duties is to combat incest."

"There are limits to what I can stomach hearing, not that anyone cares," Gareth muttered.

"And speaking of brotherly love and sisterly affection," Embla continued mercilessly. "I suppose your affair with this woman Sybille was the cause of your difficult relationship with King Dukalle."

Gareth grimaced, unhappy about but resigned to more truth coming out. "Not as such. It wasn't the affair which upset Milon, but what came after..."

♢♢♢♢♢

SECOND INTERLUDE

"A remarkable similarity indeed," King Gaidan acknowledged, if somewhat grudgingly. "Wherever did you find this petty noble, boy? I assume he is of noble birth?"

"Forgive me, sire," Milon Dukalle answered. "But I must confess to having provided merely security in this endeavor. It was my sister, the Comtessa du Rentes, who secured for Your Majesties this decoy. I must beg your royal indulgence over her absence, for she remains indisposed this day. She does, however, tell me his is a line that became defunct in the latter days of the Occupation. Under our modern laws and your enlightened guidance, any claim he might make to ancestral rights would also mean inheriting ancestral insolvency."

Gareth winced, knowing that there was no way to wriggle out of that one. The private court of King Gaidan had been in session for barely a year, yet had already became infamous for its intractable legalism. A very specific principle from the Occupation had been retained in Kale, even in the same form as the Lord of Pride had uttered it: L'Etat C'Est Mois, Et Je Suis L'Absolutisme.

Loopholes did not exist in this court even when they were clearly written down in the coda. No advocate dared to try maneuvering through clever language, or technically permissible obstructions or delays, or perspectives that might excuse an action (which was merely alleged to have occurred, of course, rather than having been admitted to by the defense being presented in this hypothetical situation). Such things had been taken as a personal insult by the Lord of Pride, so it had not been long before none of his Hoths and puppet nobles who supplicated him for judgement dared to anything except absolutely honest.

No matter what else he intended to change in Kale, King Gaidan had made it very clear that this was something he would keep. There would be no legal shenanigans permitted in his realm. The guilty would be punished, their abettors would be punished, the ignorant and premeditating alike would be punished, the accidental and the malicious alike would be punished.

"My investigation also leads me to conclude he is the last unaccounted-for provocateur of the Karpaten Incident," Milon added, to both his explanation and Gareth's list of woes. "He wishes to make amends for his role in this continuing matter by acting as bait for us to lure out the vampiric insurgency."

King Gaidan frowned at Gareth, fingers going white as he gripped the arms of his throne in anger. He did not enjoy being reminded of this vulnerability. Mortal men had little defense against the great undead. It was common knowledge that, even before he was gifted with ascension, Daven's Lord of Gluttony had been just another vampire lord. Kale, weakened as she was, could easily fall to such a monster if swift and decisive action was not taken.

The king also hated that the most likely route to success lay in the plan of one who had emerged from the Occupation stronger and wealthier than most. The Dukalle family had flourished in that bleak time, for all that many branches in that ancient family tree had been brutally pruned, and entire forests of others razed entirely. Had Milon been of almost any other house, Gaidan would have been merely upset - that it was a Dukalle who offered a solution cut him as deeply as any assassin's blade.

"Very well boy," King Gaidan proclaimed. "Your stratagem is approved. Make the necessary arrangements. Do not fail Kale. Do not fail me."

♢♢♢♢♢

Initially, Milon had believed the disreputable buffoon his sister had dragged in would jump at the opportunity. It was surely every lowborn's dream to ascend these heights for but a day, and here Milon was, offering such this provincial oaf the chance to adopt the role for as long as was needed to save Kale from regicide and rebellion. And yet, for some reason, the ungrateful man was actually complaining. Milon was even being gentle in dragging him to his destination!

"Are you insane?!" Gareth raved in a decidedly less-than-sane manner. "I will be spotted immediately. I can't pretend to be Gaidan! I don't know the first thing about court etiquette. I know a few things about vampires, sure. I know they are not going to be fooled by this. We are their food and they can-"

"Relax," Milon ordered curtly, halting before a door and knocking firmly. "I have already secured a tutor for you. We are here. Keep yourself presentable and in you go."

Whatever Gareth had intended to say disappeared into an involuntary moan as he was thrust into the chamber. Seated by the window, a quill pen in one hand and a sheaf of parchments by the other, was the single most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Beauty was the wrong word, in truth, for she was a vision of arresting magnificence - somehow, she was more real than anything around her.

She rose and revealed herself to be at least a head taller than even Gareth, her golden tresses heaped higher still. Her gown was imposingly simple, pale cream hues flowing into delicate shades of blue and green, that implied the Kalais preference for gaudiness was an inferior, sub-civilized approach.

Gareth tried to meet her eyes and promptly dropped his own lest he be cut, for they were sharp diamond blue - such a deep blue as to be nearly violet - and her gaze was remorseless and commanding.

He had been bound by the hypnotic stare of the vampire before, yet in these eyes it was no unholy power from beyond the grave that sought to enslave him, but instead an inexorable vitality, and it was all the more alluring for this reason.

The truest appreciation of life comes from knowing it will one day end, Gareth thought to himself, and questioned the source of this uncharacteristic poetry.

Milon bowed low. "May I present her most esteemed ladyship, Mistress Felicia Augusta Allini Urbanillo, late of the Far City, honored guest of fair Kale and His Illustrious Majesty Gaidan."

The transcendent woman was as motionless as a statue, and more imposing than any monument. She was above them in every respect and even as a guest in these palatial halls she needed not diminish herself to their barbarous level. Gareth felt the urge to drop to his knees in reverence, as if called to worship, and it was this which at last jolted him free. Even so, he could sense her eyes upon him, silently demanding an explanation for his refusal to submit.

"We have a pupil for you, my lady," Milon said. "He must be taught how to be Gaidan for a time. What better tutor in the ways of royalty than your own self?"

The woman inclined her chin the merest fraction in acknowledgement of this truth. When she spoke, it was in the tones of polished crystal, piercing through to the heart. Each syllable was perfectly enunciated, almost sung, pregnant with the rhythms of the Great Speech - and no mere affection, but the effortless grace of one born to the language.

"It is a dangerous thing, to request such recompense, for in so doing you risk become a debtor of mine. No concern shall I have for such an outcome, so do I warn you fairly. So forewarned, know that I, Malevoxa, accept the trade."

♢♢♢♢♢

"That narcissistic bitch will eat him alive," Sybille protested angrily.

Milon raised an eyebrow in surprise. "A politer turn of phrase than you first used for her, little sister. Also, do you forget that this was your plan from the beginning?"

In response, Sybille made a sound that was very inappropriate for a lady of her station, as well as suggesting certain actions Milon take that, aside from being anatomically impossible, would be considered unusually vulgar even in the lowest quarter of Kale City. Milon just smiled back, his usual stoic reserve faltering to see his sister acting more like her old self again, if only for a few minutes.

Marrying had changed her for the worse, in his opinion. She had become withdrawn, almost sullen, in her desire to see her duty to court and country fulfilled. He did not know how to bring her out of this depression, for such a thing it must surely be. He had made enquiries, incredibly discreet enquiries at equally incredible expense, but even if he had thought it would help, a child was no solution - the Comte was undoubtedly infertile.

Milon did not begrudge his little sister her personal interest in Gareth. A woman had needs as much as any man, and perhaps theirs were the more intense for how often they were overlooked or disregarded. By his reckoning, the Comte was a failure of a man, scarcely worth the name, and a younger Milon would have dueled him for causing such upset to dear Sybille.

I might do so in any case when all this is over, Milon considered the option carefully. She will inherit the position fully, and may thus elevate a lesser nobleman to be her consort if she so chooses. At least this one would be able to fulfil his marital duties.

Of course, it would not do to let Sybille think he was debating killing her husband, no matter how justified it might seem to him. Milon's sense of duty differed to hers, he knew all too well, and they had often struggled to maintain their alliance in the face of this. She was an idealist, sad but true, and the cold brutality of the world was a thing she did not wish to engage in fully. He loved her for this desire to cling to childhood innocence. He knew also that to protect her from losing it, he would have to plunge into the depths of ruthlessness.

The result was all that mattered. This was something Milon believed absolutely. No matter his personal feelings, or those of others, the only thing of any importance was whether success had been achieved. The cost was irrelevant. If it meant saving Kale from catastrophe, Milon would pay any price, make any deal, unite with any ally. All he had to do was stay the course until the final act, and abandon his own selfish desires in favor of the needs of the nation.

Gaidan was one such need, Milon believed that absolutely. The stability he offered was paramount. Therefore, Milon's duty was to keep Gaidan alive. The vampiric threat had to be eliminated for its own sake, of course, but Gaidan's life was not a price that could be paid because his continuing life was the end goal. Milon could see how everything had to fall into place, and what the risks entailed. If he could keep Gareth alive for his sister after all this done, so much the better.

If not, that was a shame - but a shame he was willing to accept.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Covak

"You appreciate that he is genuine?" Embla suddenly asked of Malevoxa.

The Maestra nodded, her smile hovering between smugness and cruelty. "They are all genuine. Should I be required to show the same gratitude to each and every one? This is but the deposit they pay. It is the interest that leaves them scraped dry."

His story interrupted, Gareth looked at the women in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

Embla shook her head. "I will explain when you are older. Based on all you have said so far, I think I see what happened in the end. The Comtessa died, did she not?"

He refrained from a heavy sigh, but Gareth's shoulders slumped. "Milon never forgave me. I was supposed to carry out her plan to save Kale, and the result...well, we know what the history books will say, at least in broad strokes. The details behind the cold facts of the matter are best kept out of general knowledge for a while yet. Two or three successions down the dynastic line of Dukalle, and maybe the full truth about how Milon ended up on the throne can be made public."

"There are plenty still around who could take advantage of the truth," he shuddered at the thought. "Both in the Liberated and in the Occupied Kingdoms. We dance upon a knife edge these days, the slightest misstep able to send us hurtling to our painful doom. I took on stewardship of Rentes because there was no other Milon could trust to do so, no matter how much he hated me - and because he saw that, together, we could enrich both it as a province and Kale as a whole."

At this, he did sigh. Wealth brought its own troubles. Finer ones than those of poverty, more desirable by far, but it was a depressing reality where even opulence did not protect against suffering. On occasion, Gareth had wondered if the poor were equally miserable, in a different manner, as were the wealthy; and if perhaps each privately suspected that a trade in position might do them some small good. After that, of course, he would always swiftly recover himself and mock such a foolish thought.

Such lapses in judgement were certainly rarer for them than for some others he could mention. There was the ongoing struggle Tybalt was having, for instance. The more he thought about it, the more that continued to baffle him. There was no element of the histrionic there, for all that the inexperienced might dismiss them as such. Gareth had seen poor performances by actors of every caliber and class. Tybalt's unwanted paramour was entirely genuine in her intentions.

His bewilderment must have been evident, for Embla said: "It does look like a more...intense desire than an ordinary infatuation. I confess to being disturbed by it."

Malevoxa shook her head despairingly. "Truly, you do not see the cause? After all that you know, or think you know, about the spawn of pleasure fiends down through the generations? Even the most ignorant of serfs tell torrid tales of these things. And especially with their mutual mother being the cambion..."

She looked around her, searching for a particular face in the milling crowds, still studiously ignoring the commotion but remaining close just in case Tybalt wished to speak to them after he had saved himself. It was not easy, because the person she searched for was quite short and prone to disappearing among groups of people when not needed. After a few minutes however, there was just enough of a lucky gap in the bodies for Malevoxa to spot her target, and wave them over.

A small tiefling woman with a genial smile and soft eyes trotted up to the trio, dressed in the same simple orange robe that seemed a favorite among the Covaki - that is, among the tiefling Covaki. Gareth recognized her as the Herald of the Horned Khan, who had announced the arrival of Tybalt and issued challenges on his behalf. Indeed, she had also been the one to actually send letters warning of his coming, and until recently had been one of the very few of the tieflings who was at all literate.

She had not even opened her mouth to greet them when Malevoxa gave the sharp order: "Explain your mother."

Her face fell, but remarkably, she complied.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Brokk had drawn quite a crowd and he no longer cared. As the lackluster 'wonders' of that pitifully inefficient device were increasingly extolled to him, his patience became increasingly frayed. When it was confirmed to him, in the pseudo-hushed tones of a great and fantastical truth being imparted, that the tourmaline beytillia might be recharged by simple exposure to 'atmospheric static energies', Brokk finally broke.

"You leave a bunch of cheap gems outside in a thunderstorm," he had translated. "At what point do you retrieve them? At what point do you realize trying to reinsert them into this obscenity of engineering requires precision tools? Too late, perhaps, to avoid having voided the warranty?"

The gnome had attempted to splutter an offended defense of his merchandise, but Brokk had already move onto a far more egregious issue.

"Unshielded nickel-alloy wiring? Are you trying to incinerate your customers? What do you think the quality of heat resistance is, exactly? You discharge harnessed lightning - I will repeat that in case you missed it, harnessed lightning" - along those wires and they will discharge it as heat straight onto the flesh and clothing of whoever comes to see if their gruel is adequately steamed!"

"Is it installed with a grounding shaft? No, it is not. I can see that it is not installed with a grounding shaft, because of the very visible lack of a grounding shaft. Do you even know why a grounding shaft is necessary when dealing with lightning that you are trying to use to warm your fungus porridge? What misbegotten disgrace of an apprentice vomited up this filth of a design? One with a murderous vendetta against anyone comfortable with cold stew?"

A trio of gnomes, in the charred overalls of smiths or alchemists, could not help but overhear the diatribe. Their cursory glances at the provoking object swiftly turned into loud, horrified gasps. Their own professional outrage was immediately roused, and they clustered around Brokk, adding their voices to his.

Brokk ignored them, for he had other issues to complain about. "Silicates and ceramics. The body, the glass, the valves. How do you go about their production? What is the key component in their manufacture? High temperatures. High temperatures in excess of those your abomination can create. High temperatures requiring, if you forgive me for belaboring the gods-be-damned obvious, specialized industrial processes with a considerable fuel cost."

"Setting aside the quantity required, the monetary expense is preposterous. You cannot invest in this. Mass production is necessary for profit, for scarcity is no guarantor of consumer interest value. If you attempted to mass produce these, their quality would plummet owing to the imprecise and non-directable nature of the chemistry involved. This would require artisanal skill. Several kinds of artisanal skill as a matter of fact, including in advanced metallurgy."

More gnomes were gathering and seemed divided along three lines - those in agreement, those in disagreement, and those who were too offended by an outsider sticking his ugly dwarf nose into decent gnomish business to care - but all were enjoying seeing one of the insufferable Damsa finally being called out on their mercantile dishonesty. Privately, they felt it had been a long time coming, and these degenerate liberal offshoots of the proper Dam caste had had it too easy too long.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Setting aside the first few hours of insults and offenses, this day had been the single most gratifying of Isolde's entire life. Since entering the very heart of the mountain, Isolde had been fighting the impulse to bellow her triumph for all to hear, to tower above and grind these grotesque masses under her heel as the final incontrovertible proofs of hositan superiority were laid out. Only the knowledge that these same proofs were yet to come into the open, of the wider world that was, kept her disguised.

The name of the abhorred shire echoed mockingly in her thoughts. How the Hairfoots had secretly delighted to hear of its goings-on, even through the distorting filter of rumor and hearsay. All knew the Proudfoots were barbaric and uncultured, even among the most ignorant peoples of humanity and elvendom, such that only the apologists for the Stalwarts were in need of extermination. Yet as word leaked out of loathsome Yrjune, at last they too fell evermore silent before the drumbeats of truth.

Isolde could not entirely pick out the different castes from each other, though she recognized the broad differences that divided gnomes into three major kinds. The Bal caste, oft-named crown gnomes for being the leaders of the race, were the largest and darkest breed - the unfamiliar might even mistake the burlier individuals for lanky dwarves. Isolde had cunningly chosen to disguise herself as a member of this caste, as this would afford her far greater opportunities in this part of her journey. It also served to irritate the vile Zammaz, whose enmity she had unjustly earned by sheer virtue of her race and lack of magical quality.

There were also the Ka and Dam castes, the latter of which had developed a splinter caste known as the Damsa, who were often named tunnel (though some translations preferred rock) gnomes due to their almost never leaving their subterranean domains. Ironically, almost nothing was known about them despite being the vast majority of gnomes, for even the Bal caste were more likely to leave Sheltinnobortanu simply to engage in diplomacy. Isolde knew of hositan, Stalwarts all of course, who had spoken of them as almost identical to the average halfling in appearance and temperament - and she was forced to admit that, as obscene as such a concept had seemed at the time, there was a measure of truth to it, for they had the greatest obvious variety.

Finally, the ruddy Pal and Sag castes, lowest of the low, subsisting as squatters in clean forests and otherwise decent ghettos. Being the gnomes most usually encountered above ground, they were often nicknamed sun gnomes, though Isolde knew of more choice words to call them by. The politest of these was perhaps 'traitor', and she remembered fondly Embla telling of chasing down and executing the fool Wulfram, who had led assassins to them back in Elder Daven instead of quietly submitting to her instructions.

Regardless of caste or rank, however, there was a single unifying feature of the gnomes as a whole that Isolde was delighted to have confirmed for her now. Wherever she looked, the signs of degeneracy were clearly visible. In the outside world they were hidden away, but not here, not in their homeland where no outsider was ever expected to set foot.

Hobbling. Lurching. Swaying. Gibbering. Drooling. Staring. Too many fingers or not enough. Withered growths of a third arm or leg, sometimes flapping loosely or more usually pushing out from a normal limb. Empty eye sockets, or warped bony ridges, or blank expanses of squamous flesh in place of a true face. Twisted mouths and lolling tongues, or puckered holes whistling laboriously for breath. What few teeth existed were each discolored. Squat adults that might just reach two feet in height, children that exceeded four. Scarce one in twenty gnomes seemed unafflicted, but doubtless even many of these had hidden internal deficiencies or mutations.

It was glorious to behold. Millennia of isolation, of inbreeding, of their own choices, had done more damage to the disturbing gnomes that anything the hositan could have dreamt possible. In any other setting, Isolde would have dropped to her knees and offered verbal prayers of gratitude to each member of the Laughing Triad. As it was, she contented herself with a purely mental one.

And to the misbegotten beast which had called to her, believing in her disguise as a Bal caste priestess and begging for salvation from the sickness that tore at his guts, she gave cold instruction to be more devout and attend appropriate ceremonies before asking again for such. Whether the gnomes even had temple services for their gods was irrelevant to Isolde. What mattered was the exercise of power, righteous power, power of hositan over gnome.

Have you forgotten another who lectured so similarly? a small part of her asked, but Isolde ignored it. The lies of dark elves did not apply here, no matter how similar they might appear to her truths.

♢♢♢♢♢

Beyond time, Gennax

Marchosias could feel it, the decision made, the consequences unfolding into eternity. What an irony it was, that such a prize came to him when there was no claiming it. Nevertheless, he waited for the request, as was the requirement. The paladin had spent several hours of Truetime just staring at him, considering the options, and doubtless formulating the terms carefully. And then...

"Agent of Barathus, in form named imp, in speech named Marchosias," the paladin at last spoke. "I, servant of Heshtail the Merciful, so named Aodhaen the son of Caitlin the Fair and Aurthelin zo Luvam, do hereby make a formal offer of an accord between us."

Marchosias acknowledged the offer with a necessarily simple: "Speak your terms, that I might know them."

"For the duration of our mutual presence within the plane named ," began the paladin, and Marchosias already knew how the rest would go. "Until such time, if it arrives, that we have each departed, that there be an enforced and total honesty regarding any and all questions, stated or implied, that the one asks of the other."

Protocol demanded the imp issue a counter-claim, and Marchosias mentally examined the long list of ways by which he could snare this soul with careful wording. Perhaps some fragment of the intrinsic planar apathy of had worked upon him, for Marchosias did not feel inclined to this usual act of legal malice. Instead, he performed an action of true and unequivocal evil, a deed devoid of any facet of the Ontological Law that made up a full half of his being - a betrayal of that half of himself.

"Without qualification or modification, I do acknowledge these terms as acceptable," the imp said, and so was struck a pact between devil and paladin.

If word of this got out to the other Baratheans, Marchosias was surely done for. What devil would refuse to manipulate a bargain in its favor? What devil would agree to such an offer in the first place? Even the lowliest fiend most often had memories stretching back millennia, and secrets within more valuable than a universe of jewels. All this now available for learning by a paladin, one of the Great Foes, with any question he might deliberately or accidentally ask.

Out of all the nigh-infinite possibilities, however, Marchosias knew exactly what would be asked. He had seen it in the paladin's eyes, in a growing aura of understanding, as the spirit grew to accept the nascent divinity of Ylsmyr-watze. The imbalance in the universe that had been wrought before mortalkind, before elvendom, in the first instant of Truetime that passed upon the Shattered Jewel at reality's heart.

"What do you know about the dead gods?" the paladin asked, and Marchosias began to speak the long answer.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Covak

Embla listened especially carefully, for there were many things about tieflings and their ilk that were merely suspected by the Risarvinnae, as opposed to actually confirmed. The only contact they typically had with the creatures was on the rare occasions one was accompanying an Ishian trading party to the neutral territories - Badalans and Kunese sometimes made similar journeys to these infrequent meets, but they too were invariably homogenous groups - and conversation with them was even rarer.

Some of what she heard was known, such as the unfailing fecundity of cambions even unto their final years - except in the event of catastrophic injury, though only to males, as the equivalent damage to female cambions necessarily killed them - and the social disparity between the sexes. That made a certain amount of logical sense and had been deduced long before any Aslaug had confirmed it. Male cambions were pathologically fratricidal almost from birth, going to any extreme to eliminate potential rivals for mates; whereas the females usually cooperated to secure a shared harem, staggering their pregnancy cycles to maintain dominance over their captives.

Much else that the tiefling spoke of was new, however, and it was this which Embla was most interested in. She had not known, for instance, that cambions which took an active interest in their offspring typically aimed to brutalize them into being compulsive breeders. The Covaki tieflings had been intended for exactly this fate, though only a very few had started to suffer before Tybalt put a stop to it - most of these tormented souls had turned their enforced lust to him in the aftermath, and the healing was extremely difficult.

Another revelation was that female cambions could comfortably nurture four or five babies at once, often provided by different fathers and even at very different times. Their pregnancies were highly accelerated, lasting no more than five months, and each infant could be birthed individually whilst the others continued to develop. Coupling this with the preceding fact, Embla realized that entire warbands, even armies, could be left to breed themselves into existence with only minimal initial investment from their progenitor.

Provided they had the slave capacity to keep them properly nourished, a nest of female cambions could thus easily outbreed even the most prolific male - though they were necessarily forced to remain in one location and risk discovery. Apparently in a fit of lunatic genius, the mother of the Covaki tieflings had decided to blend the traditional techniques of the sexes, and been incredibly successful as a result.

She had wandered the Wild Lands at will, targeting isolated settlements and harassing nomad migration routes. With each encounter, she birthed the most developed of her brood and moved on, trusting in the terror she sowed among her prey to make them raise her unholy progeny. She fed amply and needed to spare neither time nor energy as would most of her ilk. Only after enough were physically mature enough to be enslaved would she bother to settle down and force them to interbreed to create her army.

"How many a month?" Embla asked at one point.

"Two pauses to birth," the tiefling answered sadly. "But none of us are singles. About half of us are twins, maybe a quarter to a third are triplets, and the rest of larger numbers. Our mother could drop five or six of us every month. And she did, may the Hells keep her."

"For how long?" Embla demanded.

There was a longer pause, as the answer was especially displeasing. "Some months shy of twenty years. Across the Dar, we are thousandstrong. Kattakhan Khandyyn took only his finest on the paths. We do not all impose upon Covak at once. Hakim Gareth taught us that would be rude."

"You call me 'hakim'?" Gareth asked, a smile of surprise on his face. "I am honored, truly I am. I've been called so much worse, like reprobate and marquis. To be a healer is a far finer thing. Though a little more responsibility might be attached to it..."

The tiefling smiled back. "You have done so much for us all. We know what you endured, and what you accomplished, when the rest of the world does not. It was why our mother tried to gather us to begin with. She thought you would be even easier prey than the king you replaced."

The implication caught Embla completely by surprise. "Gaidan actually died?"

"Of course he did," the tiefling exclaimed. "Did you not know? Then let me explain..."

♢♢♢♢♢

THIRD INTERLUDE

Milon Dukalle paced, if not truly fretfully then with a concerned focus, back and forth and back again in his chambers. Perhaps understandably, the bait Gareth was proving intractable. The severity of the situation had been fully grasped, Milon was sure of it, but the man simply did not want to cooperate. It was as if he had no wish to impersonate the king, even to save the kingdom.

Some days past he had even considered speaking to Sybille about this, but that evening he had heard evidence from her bedroom of her foresight in this matter. Milon was not entirely sure if he should approve of this move, or condemn her infidelity, or even both in one order or the other. Lady Urbanillo had reported that each liaison improved the bait's performance thereafter, which Milon had also disliked. There was something disturbing about that woman not just knowing of the affair, but only mentioning it to him after realizing that he also knew.

Something bardic about that, he tried to convince himself. Secrets never stay secret long around them unless they themselves are the creator.

This logic did not soothe his concerns much. Several of his spies had vanished, all of them assigned to monitor the Comte du Rentes, who had himself disappeared three days ago. His carriage had been found, reduced to splinters and twisted metal, the horses and driver grotesquely spread over a considerable area. Another vampiric spawn, the Comte's former aide de camp no less, had later failed to infiltrate the palace. Milon had had put pay to that endeavor himself.

He was missing something here, he knew, but what exactly this thing was he did not know, and more than anything else it was that which quickened his breath and chilled his heart. Some missing piece of a grand pattern was hovering just beyond his grasp, taunting him with the knowledge that could unravel the tapestry entire. Yet for all his struggles, he could reach out and take hold of that final fragment that would make it all sensible to him.

Gaidan was growing increasingly concerned also. Certain looks he gave, or intonations to his commands, were even more worrisome to those in the know. Milon recalled the paranoia characteristic of the court of Pride. The necessity of keeping up appearances, maintaining your ascension through the hierarchy - but never challenging the inner circle of the Lord of Pride - distracting your rivals by seeming to be better than them even (or especially) when you were weaker. Gaidan had been a true master of the game, never letting it corrupt him, manipulating its rules and traditions to safeguard his allies.

Ironic, then, that his reaching the pinnacle as a free man had done the damage which a lifetime of service to a Lord of Sin had not. In this testing time, Gaidan had needed to fall back, to delegate power in order to remain king, and so the dark fears began to eat away at him. Already he had to contend with vampires, so was a more prosaic insurrection not just as likely to be growing in the shadows? The coup d’état was no stranger to the land of Kale - had they not named the act? - and all around he was beginning to suspect plots and treason.

It was as these thoughts, and many others of similar weight and consequence, strode in grim procession through his head, that Milon heard the first cries of pain and fear. Instantly, sword in hand, he burst from his room and charged up the hall. Servants scattered, for even in their terror they knew better than to bar his path. In a matter of seconds, he reached the doors to the royal chambers, hanging loosely from their hinges, and stepped within.

♢♢♢♢♢

Milon took in the scene with a wrathful self-recrimination, only now and too late seeing that missing piece of the grand pattern. There could be no saving the queen, whose throat and upper body was crimson confusion, but there was a chance still for Gaidan. His murder was clearly a more personal one, for the vampire was taking its time to snap bone and rend flesh, enjoying the torments it inflicted.

"Comte Aurelion du Rentes!" Milon called out, and the vampire whirled about in surprise at the name, then snarling upon seeing its challenger. "By my oaths to crown and country, for the crimes you have committed here I demand the right of satisfaction through blood."

The regicidal vampire, his dear Sybille's missing husband, his brother-by-law, laughed darkly in his face. Its soulless eyes fixed onto his own, seeking to dominate his will. Milon strained against the unspoken commands, knowing that to submit would be a fate worse than death. His resistance was unexpected, enough that the vampire threw aside the broken Gaidan to focus more fully upon this impudent fool.

The contest was ended as a powerful syllable lacerated their ears. Milon staggered, a hot trickle of blood on either side of his face. The vampire, though less injured in body, was visibly dazed by the terrible counter-charm. It did not recover in time to avoid the crackling orb of light that manifested into existence around its head, sending it crashing to the floor in a howling agony.

As their hearing returned, the humming strings of a harp also reached them. Milon flinched away, for he knew what that meant. The empty space was immediately filled by the presence of the Farlandish Maestra Urbanillo, her face more monstrous in its hate than that of the vampire, her voice redolent with the magic of bards. The harp she strummed to empower this magic was known to bear a curse from the court of the Lord of Envy, but it was too mighty a tool to be easily set aside.

Unsurprisingly, Milon had no desire to be too close to it, or to the lady Urbanillo when she was in the throes of her art. He had heard tales, even confirmed a few of them, and the chances of becoming collateral damage were upsettingly high. Nonetheless, he had a duty to his king, perhaps even an opportunity to drag him out of here whilst the vampire was distracted. Milon could then return and aid in finishing off the monster before-

"What in all the Hells is going on here?" Gareth's voice sounded from the doorway, and the pained vampire instantly snapped to attention.

"You!" it growled, suddenly revitalized. "Her scent is on you still! And there I had thought Gaidan had found a way to mask it somehow. But no! It is you who dared make a cuckold of me!"

It was at this point Milon realized he had been mistaken. The transformed former Comte du Rentes had not sought to assassinate the king as part of some grand vampiric plan to suborn the kingdom. It had merely gotten Gaidan and Gareth confused, and was (sort of) righteously offended as any husband ought to be.

♢♢♢♢♢

"Now now, Comte, let's not do anything hasty!" Gareth yelped, diving behind Milon. "We can discuss this calmly and reasonably, like gentleman and sinner. You're the gentleman here, Comte, obviously. Nobility, wealth, morals, all these lovely and good things the better classes are so full of!"

The vampire hissed and lunged, slipping straight past both warrior and bard in pursuit of its true enemy, with such speed it was very nearly a blur. Gareth was its only prey, and more than mere bloodthirst had taken hold of it. This pathetic little mortal petit noblesse had dared to lay claim to its own possessions. Such arrogance demanded restitution in the most slow and painful of ways.

However, this was hardly the first jilted husband that Gareth had needed to flee from. True, the legendary speed of the vampire was something of a disadvantage, but that did not mean Gareth was just going to give up on running and actually face his enemy. He had only followed his tutor in the ways of kingly affectations for an impromptu comparison with the real thing, and he had no intention of trying to showcase futile bravery as part of that comparison.

Gareth not only had a respectable head start, which doubtless did wonders for saving his life, but he had the amazing good fortune to meet the Comtessa almost immediately. He had to admit she was incredibly brave and thus incredibly foolish for following the screams instead of sensibly fleeing them, but it had the unexpected effect of halting the vampire in its tracks.

"Aurelion?" the Comtessa gasped in understandable shock, automatically stepping forward to greet her husband. "You are...back. Already. I wasn't expecting you for another week, my love."

"Do not mock me so, Sybille!" the monster howled, grabbing and lifting her by the shoulders as if preparing to shake her apart. "You betray me! You deceitful, filthy, peasant-blooded harlot, you vile...vile, gutter whore!"

To her credit, the Comtessa remained calm, even as Gareth fought off the panic and tried to advance on them, shaking like a leaf in a storm. Her hand moved up to the thick fabrics that had already been drawn against the last sunlight of the day. With a sharp jerk, the curtains flew apart, and instantly the incensed vampire burst into flames. Though he dropped her almost at once, her own dress caught fire as well, and she cried out in pain.

The sound was enough to steel Gareth's nerves, and his charge was enough to send the vampire hurtling through the window and into the evening, still aflame. Shrieking, it dropped out of sight and sun, fleeing in turn to recover and dream of exacting its revenge. The Comtessa finished writhing, smothering the fires that still clung to her, and stood up shakily to embrace Gareth, thanking him profusely for acting so quickly. Despite the threat being gone, they both avoided the broken window out of sheer untrusting wariness.

When they returned to the royal chambers, however, it was clear the intervention had been too late. Milon stood over the cooling body of the late King Gaidan, with the Maestra Urbanillo nearby already dispassionately composing an aria to commemorate the event. As he met Milon's eyes, Gareth realized, with a sinking heart, that he was going to have to start pretending to be Gaidan for real...or flee Kale entirely, alone, without the resources of the kingdom to defend him against an angry vampire out for his blood.

"So..." he begun, then cleared his throat and made another attempt, this time without the embarrassing squeak. "Our first order of business is to dispose of one body and, next but no less importantly, mourn my murdered queen. Milon, you can make the arrangements, I trust?"

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Covak

"This is going to be quite the story, I see," Embla said. "I think you'll have to tell me more of it as we travel. For now, unless I miss my guess, we are about finished here."

The group looked over to where Tybalt, finally, had managed to prise his little sister loose. Even now, she was straining against him to resume the embrace, a terrible desperate madness in her eyes. Embla remembered a similar look among bred and raised to be pleasure slaves - at least, among the merchandise brought forth by the Ishians, who all too often treated even their livestock more charitably. And just as those slaves had, this poor girl had been similarly molded into a mere tool for the use of others.

Embla thought carefully on the parallels, wondering if there was anything she remembered from those encounters that might be useful here. It could only have been from the two or three instances when Ishian and Badalan traders were both present. As she recalled, the Badalans had a particular distaste for the Ishian model. In their culture, physical intimacy had been so often paired with religious veneration that an entire tradition dedicating to this had developed and been codified into law.

Though not universal, this tradition was prized as an integral component of the Badalan faith system, and even those who did not practice it typically held a very positive view regardless. As far as Embla could understand, Badalans considered what the Ishians did with their slaves as spiritually soiling, a debasing of oneself as well as of another. Perhaps it was to right this wrong that Embla had heard of Badalans buying such slaves in bulk specifically to take them back home and liberate them once their spiritual wounds had been healed.

"There was a phrasing they used," Embla whispered, trying to remember it now. "What was the logic behind it? Made to please, so make them feel useful. How did they convince them?"

"Who convinced who of what when now?" Gareth asked, confused.

The others shrugged, as lost as Gareth, but then Embla barked a laugh. She turned to the tiefling herald and said: "Woman, you have both word-skill and kinship with that child. I will tell you what to say, and you make her believe it. Do it well and your Khan Tybalt gains time."

"Time is the most precious and fleeting of gifts in this world," the herald acknowledged. "But time for what?"

And Embla explained her memory. Of how wise men and women had carefully nurtured in pleasure slaves the long-suppressed concept of service being more than erotic subservience. Of how they had given the unfortunates tasks to complete for which verbal praise could be given. Of how a notion of individual self-worth could be slowly restored to those from whom it had been stripped many years earlier.

Malevoxa listened closely, her expression inscrutable. Such things were not unknown to her, for overcoming exactly such a withering of the spirit was a perquisite of taking the lead in her arts - yet Malevoxa was the one trying to inflict this injury in the first place, all the better to separate the endless chaff from the wheat. The gentleness of the Badalan approach was as alien to her as kindness was to the slaves, but she did not dismiss the details out of hand. There was material here she could weave into some future work, if she so chose, and possibilities danced brightly in her oft-dark thoughts.

She came to a decision quickly. There was one thing she would insist upon before they left Covak. Or rather, two things, two sisters in fact. The two that she would simply force Gareth to persuade Tybalt into bringing with them. His broken little sister and his loyal herald. Through observing them over the next days or weeks, Malevoxa could glean even more that might be of use later.

♢♢♢♢♢

Three months earlier, Sheltinnobortanu

Brokk was still ranting as Isolde all but dragged him away, patting his shoulder in the patronizing way of caretakers dealing senility the world over, as she cheerfully spouted vapid nothings as if trying to draw his attention away. It made no difference of course, as well she knew, and the dwarf hurled his criticism at almost everything he saw on their way out of the mercantile region of Sheltinnobortanu.

A pair of eye-lenses alchemically treated to darken in sunlight? "None of you have even seen the outside world for ten generations!" A literary collection promising wonders in improving self-motivation? "Buying motivational pamphlets means you are already motivated!" A foot pump-operated polisher for bald heads? "Did you polish the inside of your head?" A harness and leash for walking domestic fungus beetles? "What moron is treating giant insects like dogs?"

In flippant off-remarks as they passed by, Isolde would deftly compound each outraged bellow with an insinuation or question that encouraged everyone except the targeted Damsa to follow up on the critiques. By herself, she knew she could never have achieved the cataclysmic disharmony which now lay behind them. Constrained by her disguise, it had been up to Brokk to sow the seeds of discontent, and he had done so magnificently.

I wonder when I should tell him that was the plan, Isolde thought to herself. He probably won't appreciate my leaving him alone just then was deliberate. Best if I keep that as one of my little secrets. Say that it was his fault I wasn't there because he came up with the idea for my disguise in the first place.

She kept an ear open to enjoy the growing arguments behind them. It had gone so much better than expected, or than she had any right to hope for. For generations upon generations, the gnomes had been practically sealed up in their mountain with each other, without any reasonable opportunities to escape each other. Grudges across castes and across generations had necessarily built up - you could not just leave and return when you were calm - and there had been no outside addition of new ideas to offset the deranged internal attempts at innovation that did not break with tradition.

Of course, there was the unfortunate truth that this would probably do the gnomes some good, even in just the short term. Venting anger at someone who had wronged you felt good, as Isolde knew from ample personal experience, and for a while after the pieces were picked up here, the gnomish race as a whole would get along better and cooperate a little more fully. At least until new grudges began to grow.

And unless I imagined starting marketplace fights before, Isolde suddenly realized. Those screams are very likely to be the first parts of an actual riot. By Bunga but I do wish we weren't on such a tight schedule. I would have loved to watch that.

Yet there was nothing else she could do now, at least if she wanted to keep Brokk safe from being accidentally swept up in the riot, but to keep them moving until they were through the danger zone. She could that Zammaz, no true fool himself, had his suspicions about what had just happened, but himself had little choice but to keep leading them to their destination.

Deeper and deeper, they had to go, for some reason known only to the Loremasters. Isolde could be patient when she wanted to be. She would find out what Brokk had wanted to keep from her for now, and then deal with it as needed. The unknown irony of the situation was, even had she known exactly where they were going and what they were going there for, there was absolutely no way Isolde could have prepared for it.

♢♢♢♢♢

Beyond time, Gennax

Marchosias had, for the sake of completeness, begun by covering the basics of the universe as it was widely understood. The birth of the planes by the Ontological Forces, their cosmological positions and interactions, the nature of Núrion as a proxy battleground for the Ontological War, and so forth. Nothing especially difficult for even an amateur theologian to follow, let alone a paladin such as Aidan. Then he had confirmed what Aidan had only suspected, and only after his death, up until this point.

"Her name was Lagur," Marchosias whispered with true reverence. "Archtyrant of Barathus. Our Eldgoddess Anathema of Heshtail. By Her will were made the first laws that bound to suppress rather than uplift, oaths to enslave rather than liberate, codes to exploit rather than to benefit. Where your Lord of Mercy did suffer for others, our Lady of Malice did cause torment for Her gain."

"From Her Oneness did come the Two Facets of Lawful Evil: Mastery and Subservience. Yet before Her, even the Master must be Subservient. Our records affirm She was the first to fashion new life - for what is a Tyrant without their Slave? - but these are records of devilkind after all. Little greater tyranny than to bind us all with a lie we believe utterly is truth. Can you prove elsewise?"

Marchosias smiled widely. The implications were clearly a perennial delight of the Barathean fiends, a logical maze their minds were intrinsically capable of exploring without prompt or hesitation. Aidan too saw the appeal of the arguments, though had self-awareness enough to see that this was filtered through his own allegiance to the side of Good. The imp was not finished, however.

"In that time beyond time, each Eldgod made their own servant. Heshtail, for instance, made Reeanan the Bright. So bolstered, the Godswar continued - each side compelled to show their supremacy over the others. Perhaps they each saw the inevitability of stalemate. Nine perspectives simultaneously at odds with each other and allied in some capacity or another. Obviously, we claim it was our Lady Lagur who orchestrated the next step, for who else could bring the Dark Triad together to combine their power?"

"The gods and their servants are constrained by their natures, trapped within their own realms as much by need as by preference. Removing this constraint would therefore be the key to the victory of Evil Entire. Thus from the Three came the One, who could Walk in all Darkness, and direct all Evil unto the single goal of vanquishing Good. I imagine each believed the Ontological impurity in this youngest would let them overpower the god and wield it as a weapon for their own victory against the others."

"Yet many alloys are stronger than their base parts, and so it was here. The Darkest God played each of the Dark Triad at their own game. He reasoned that as some energy of the old gods could be siphoned off to make new gods, so too could all their energy be compressed into a single vessel. The sole requirement, the sole obstacle for Him to overcome, was their consent. Thus, the Book of Seven."

♢♢♢♢♢

Beyond time, Gennax

Aidan could see it all so clearly. How the Walker-in-Darkness had deceived each of the others. His progenitors had been limited by the very purity which they believed made them superior to him. The goddess of Barathus, this forgotten cosmic equivalent to his own Heshtail, had been too Lawful to believe a creation of hers could break an agreement. The similarly murdered deity of Malor must have been too Chaotic to comprehend the structure of the deception.

And that too explained the anomaly of Grlarshh. As the scion of Neutral Evil, the god of death must have had just enough understanding to grasp the fundamentals of both extremes - not enough to save him completely, but enough for him to survive the deicidal usurpation of Vornoth. How the Darkest God must rage knowing this, Aidan realized, that dispassionate self-interest and paranoia kept him from a complete victory over his creators! Small wonder the servants of Grlarshh were hunted across the universe by those of the Darkest God.

"I do have one further question," Aidan said. "Why the Book of Seven? What is the significance of that number? I suspect the origin of the Sins is related to it, but I feel I am missing something else."

"The number and nature of the gods who were to be made fashioned into it," Marchosias explained. "The Dark Triad had each fashioned their own godling servants. Lagur begat Urslave Nij, the Facet of Subservience. Grlarshh begat Tormossh, and Soggoth-"

Aidan contorted with a barely muffled scream. The agony receded almost instantly, as Ylsmyr - silently listening to the whole thing - placed a hand on his shoulder and shielded him from the pain, but the memory of it remained. A look at Marchosias' face revealed that the imp too had been greatly disturbed by speaking that name, as even that of the god of death in whose domain they now stood had not.

"That one begat Yorsot," Marchosias continued hastily. "The six deities of the Hells to mirror the six of the Heavens, each possessed of an emblematic quality that became known as a Sin. Our Lagur owned Pride, for there could be no higher than She. The Urslave Nij held Sloth, for Nij could not act by themselves, but only in accordance to the whim of Lagur. In Grlarshh was Greed, to bring all things to an end and thus into his sway, as in Tormossh was Gluttony, who sought only to consume without thought for consequence - such as how causing one death now might prevent many deaths later."

"Of the gods of Malor...ah, that one, if you can understand, held Lust. Not that disappointingly limited sexual lust so commonly projected by your amusingly celibate clergy, but the true deep lust of impulsive, unrestricted gratification. Hedonism. Excess. Climactic perfection in all things. Pleasure, pain, sorrow, joy. The transcendental pandemonium of the madness of sanity and the clarity of lunacy. Chaos. Very repulsive. Yorsot, its purpose for creation being war, thus found gratification only in Wrath."

"And of that last Sin, malleable and twisted little Envy, it resided in pathetically feeble Bemit, an investment in creation by the Walker-in-Darkness themselves. Destined to be a sacrifice, their power reclaimed by their maker, desiring only to prove that they were not the weakling they had been deliberately crafted to be. Just as the Walker-in-Darkness had been formed by the combination of the powers of the Dark Triad, so too did he now suggest all the gods of evil combine their powers, their innate qualities of Sin, to form a great artifact that would swing the balance in their favor once more."

Aidan did not need to hear the next part, for he saw how the deception had worked. The eight evil gods had all willingly pooled their energy into the creation of this godly artifact, and Vornoth had tricked the other seven into giving up all of it. Yet his plan had not been perfectly executed - Grlarshh had suspected something at the end, and betrayed the treacherous agreement. The Book of Seven was, therefore, technically incomplete.

Yet he could not help but feel there was more at play, and he could see that Marchosias felt the same. A name had been spoken that had caused an effect. This had been a surprise to the imp, clearly, so something was different in this case - the most obvious conclusion was the nascent god Ylsmyr, consciously or subconsciously, affecting reality. But why in such a way, over mention of a long-dead god?

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Third Sulian-Malorish Concordance of the Fifteenth Cycle, Observatory of K'naa

It was merely the chill dankness of these primal depths which caused him to shiver, for the warlock could not fear that soulless aberration silently poring over the fetid inscription, exuded as it had been from the unnamable bowels of a mechanistic perversion. An antiquarian and erudite of his caliber reserved a healthy caution for encounters such as these, naturally, for the threat of unreasoning violence was lamentably ever-present among the hypospelean hideousnesses.

Even now, the chittering gibberers crawled and cavorted at his back, straining against the wards he had so carefully raised against them. Yet none of these dared approach further, lest they draw the attention of that other, which in displeasure of interruption might deem it suitable to unmake them. What horror entailed in such a fate, that even the witless beasts knew by instinct to avoid it?

At his chest, the talisman grew cold, one of its twelve rings resonating to a call from beyond. The warlock resisted the impulse to still its trembling, knowing of the danger therein. Patience would suffice, as it had for much of his life. Fools rushed ahead without the appropriate care, without the necessary considerations, and uniformly met their end. Not so for he, who had survived so much and transcended the limitations of what his lessers had believed possible.

Naxartes felt a bulbous something brush against his leg, perhaps seeking to distract. He resisted the impulse to utter certain blasphemous syllables, for this was a restriction by which he no longer needed to abide. He forked his fingers downwards, trusting to skill, and crackling beams of ethereal force leapt from them. It was a punitive blow, rather than a destructive one, and the underfoot interference ceased immediately to the discordant accompaniment of a pained fluting.

The other ignored this incident. Naxartes was relieved, though obviously not because he felt in any way threatened by it. He, last and greatest of the warlocks of the Twelve Moons Coven, was beyond its capacity to censure. These chthonic exchanges were occasionally valuable for academic purposes, given the inadequacies of the surface. That was the only reason he had deigned to come here - expediency, rather than necessity. He reminded himself again of how dissatisfactory it would be if he was forced into aborting this meeting.

At last, the inspection was finished. The other looked at him and Naxartes met that unblinking luminescent stare with impugn serenity. Impenetrable was his expression, absent was the other's. A batriachian ululation sounded from the furtive tenebreity of those charnel recesses, whereupon Naxartes felt compelled to present a bolder figure still and thus took a step forward.

His aegis withstood whatever experimental influence was covertly exerted upon him at that moment, if indeed any had been, for Naxartes could sense not the slightest interference. Consequently, his persistent liberty was the most persuasive of arguments to the perspicacious observant. The omnipresent weight of unnamable malignity lifted from him then. Naxartes smiled, knowing he had won this engagement. This alliance, of convenience to be sure, had been successfully negotiated in his favor.

Soon, nothing would be able to oppose him again. Not even those insufferable hounds that had harried him from Daven to Kale. Victory was sweet, and victory was his.

TO BE CONTINUED