The Adamdar Spring

Part Three

By R. Krommydas



The Now, Before the Mirror at Xura

Isolde hissed as the blade scraped her ribs, its poison scorching her veins and warring against the alchemic protections within. She fell from her hidden perch, barely recovering herself in time to land with some small grace instead of crash in a pile of limbs and agony. Her ambush had failed, and nearby Brokk lay dreadfully still in a pool of his blood. This could all be overcome, however, if they kept their nerve.

The arrogant vermin that had so wounded her was a surprise. It was supposed to have stayed behind with the elvenking, tail between its legs, in its place. Yet here it was, flickering between scenes of horror - just there a nightmare effulgence, just beyond the incendiary brutalists, just a maddening phantasm all perhaps? - and this time Isolde knew there could be neither draw or retreat.

She could not see her opponent for a few terrible seconds, yet from the corner of her eye could be seen a glass shard become darkened for but a single instant. It was enough, and she dodged the lunge, though her sinews and nerves screamed with the effort. The poison was unnaturally powerful, burning through her protection swiftly. Too swiftly. This was an even more unpleasant surprise. Short of a magical element in its preparation, this meant the poison had been refined specifically to overcome the various antivenoms Isolde maintained as a natural precaution.

Both she and her foe were out in the open now, where both hated to be, yet could not risk trying to relocate lest that gave the other an advantage. Isolde kept her eyes locked onto those inscrutable black beads of the oversized vermin, and held back a shiver of disgust as its hairless tail danced menacingly in the background.

Sounds came from all around, many and confusing, but she ignored them all. None posed a threat to her. Only this big rat did, and she had shown her worth against it before. Now it was time to prove exactly how terrible a halfling could be. Perhaps as grisly trophies, she would pluck out those filthy beady eyes and wear them as a necklace. The grotesque thought was amusing, and she smiled much as Embla could smile so frightfully, lips pulled back and all her teeth on display.

A third surprise. Her foe suddenly seemed worried. A small brown body flew between them, and it promptly vanished into a burst of thick fog. Isolde shredded the coiling mists with flying daggers, not so foolish as to enter them herself, but to no avail. Reflexively she cast a glance at the interruption, half-turned to seek out her cowardly prey, and then dashed over to examine the corpse more carefully.

It twitched in her arms, coughing up blood and spitting hatred at her - but very much more alive than she had been fooled into thinking. Isolde shrieked as the dagger pierced her guts, a fresh poison eating into her. Frantically, she pulled herself free, faintly knowing that doing so meant that the blade would no longer plug her wound but horrified beyond rational thought. As she struggled to hold her insides together, the black-furred shape of Ikit Gloryshadow descended on her from above, but all Isolde could see was the murderous wrath on the face of the not-corpse, a face in all other ways identical to her own.


Two months earlier, Brightshade Rubicon

All three of gnome, dwarf, and halfling shivered involuntarily as they passed by the deepest boundary marker of the concealed realm of Sheltinnobortanu. Until that point, they had been technically within the territory of a civilized and peaceful people (personal feelings aside), but now they had entered into a place that was palpably alien. No mere wilds this, as were the sun-dappled forests and cloud-piercing mountains of the upper lands, but a realm wholly and utterly divorced from these comforting familiarities.

It had taken them two weeks to cross the checkpoints. Isolde had never seen so many wards and guards in such a configuration, standing watch over both directions. She had initially continued to wear the hat until this point, more out of habit than a desire to keep deluding the gnomes. The very first checkpoint had dissuaded her from continuing to do so, when the routine anti-illusory spell that swept over them nearly resulted in a bloodbath as the guards believed themselves under attack. The paperwork alone that had been needed to resolve in and allow them to press onwards had delayed them by a full six days.

With each step, Isolde appreciated all the more the efforts that Brokk was undertaking. This was indeed no ordinary descent, but one aiming for a very specific location. That its most convenient point of access was beneath the gnomish homeland suggested certain dark and horrific things to Isolde that, even setting her hositan prejudices aside, would go a long way towards explaining much that had been lost to history.

The tunnels they were descending now were unlit, with Brokk and Zammaz alike refusing to use so much as a cantrip to illuminate their path. Isolde had asked, but the answer referred to some ancient treaty that did not aid in her understanding, and as Brokk had readied spells to allow her see as they did, in the complete absence of light, she did not press the matter.

Nor did she press them on the curious name of this region, which had caused the Loremasters to glance at each other with a look she recognized as fear. Not wariness or caution, which were reasonable things to have in this sort of place, but outright fear. Isolde remembered Brokk hinting at what awaited them at this end of this journey, and she had spent many a long hour wracking her brains for what little knowledge or rumor she had of the uttermost depths.

Two days of travel, the air becoming ever more stale and turgid, the suspicion of the darkness itself being hostile moving ever more towards certainty, and the faintest pinprick of light ahead seemed an obvious falsehood to Isolde. Then it burst around them, blinding, searing, and several minutes were needed to let their wounded eyes adjust its existence once more. Tiny patches of luminescent moss decorated the cave walls, none larger across than a halfling's palm, each glowing a sickly green or lurid purple.

A shape moved at the far end of the cave, squat and misshapen, lurching forward as if uncertain of how to walk. It had neither eyes nor hair, but a featureless expanse of maggot-white skin that bunched horribly about its joints. Its flat face was punctuated only by a small central pit that might have been a nose, and a blue-pink chasm oozing grey slime that probably served as its mouth. By some unwelcome miracle, Isolde recognized its distant ancestry, but could not fathom the depths of time and degeneracy needed to produce this horror.

It lifted its repulsive paw, blindly beckoning them, and turned to lead them deeper still into the bowels of the earth. A more undesirable herald could hardly be imagined, but had she been better informed, Isolde would have gladly taken a thousand more like it rather than meet its master.


Water has a smell. That smell can tell a reasonably sensitive person just what kind of water they are dealing with. Isolde, who had spent much of her life avoiding large bodies of water, was nevertheless familiar with this particular odor, and she scraped her tongue against her teeth to try and rid herself of the taste that hung cloying in the air. Death and filth had taken up residence in that black pool, their repulsive herald mindlessly turning aside to add to it, and not a one of them was so stoic as to keep from retching.

The moss grew thicker and stranger here, its light touching upon shades that were somehow wrong. Isolde could have sworn the patches shifted slightly as they passed. No more than a hair's breadth, perhaps less, but enough for her own to stand on end in response. She felt more like a prey animal with each step deeper into this hideous realm and what a strange thing it was to consider oneself prey of moss! The ludicrous nature of her situation was insufficiently amusing to lighten her mood. Her hands hovered about her daggers, ready for anything, so she thought.

Then their twisted guide halted, glibbering wet syllables at them, to bow and scrape pathetically in the direction of a carven gate ahead. The iconography molded into the white-veined stones made Isolde sick to her stomach, each shape more hideously suggestive than the last, with not a one corresponding to any healthy or sane schema of life. With one final mewling screech, their guide crawled backwards, still prostrating itself, out of sight into a hole that ought have been too small for it - and was indeed plainly injurious to judge by the scrapings of blueish blood left at its entrance.

The trio waited here now, the great and still pool of this under-realm reeking nearby, with Isolde plainly seeing true fear on the faces of the others. First Brokk, then Zammaz, took a knee before the gate, heads bowed. A rising pressure of malignity nearly forced Isolde to join them, but she forced herself to remain standing. She was hositan, and not even before dragonkind did her people bow unwillingly.

So it was that she saw fully the horror which emerged into the moss-light, towering and monstrous beyond mortal measure, and the bulwarks of her mind groaned under the weight of its evil visage. Not since Dessingrove had she beheld such a thing, but then its attention had not been directly upon her and she had escaped with relatively little harm. Now, however, her defiance merited complete focus.

Isolde could feel the wriggling of tendrils beneath her scalp, caressing her brain with the soft touch of the connoisseur, though in truth she was several feet away. Pale eyes betraying no hint of soul, of emotion, of comprehensible morality, held imprisoned her own gaze, which once she had believed to be fierce and steely. Before this it merely withered, and Isolde knew the only reason she remained inviolate was because this horror was more interested in examining her responses to this situation.

<Three in one place?>

The question was not spoken aloud, but felt as an impression within the mind. It was not even language as Isolde understood the concept, yet she had no doubts as to the intent of the query. Brokk was the one who replied, his voice remarkably stable for one so obviously fearful.

"We seek to recover a lost link to a chain," he said. "A link perhaps hidden, perhaps destroyed, and perhaps guarded."

<Voidworlders willingly incur debt?>

Even through the emotionless haze of the psychic link, Isolde could feel a hint of sardonic condescension in the question. A rhetorical question, no less, though how Isolde could discern that was beyond her capacity to explain. She was more interested in deciding whether or not she could kill this creature if it became necessary. In a common duel, or even one bolstered by magic, there was no doubt in her mind that she would triumph. However, the implicit extent of its mental powers revealed to her thus far led to the conclusion that this would be an adversary far beyond her ability.



Two months earlier, Chigaqqar Kurultai

Even the largest of the human khans seemed very small next to Tybalt. Each of them had come to the kurultai, this combined council and market and festival, from their own minor tribes to pay homage to Aqqar the Bullbreaker, whose ancestral lands these were and who stood a full head taller than most of his kin, and even he showed deference to Tybalt of the Unloved Children. But, as Embla could easily discern, the mere size of these men was misleading.

Most were distant relations of each other, cousins some paces removed from the originating family line, of which Aqqar was the primary descendant - and thus heir to the territory central to those claimed by his relatives. Tybalt could have no legitimate claim here unless it was imposed by force. Even scattered as his brethren were, the tieflings were more than capable of succeeding in such an attempt, and knowing this, the khans came here for more than simple familial pleasantries, but to reassert their old alliances and to resolve equally old grudges without weakening themselves.

There was power here, of a sort the stunted masses huddling behind their walls to the east could scarce understand. Embla saw it, heard it, relished it. Already she could sense that there would be no disappointment from these people. Perhaps there was nothing to impress her as such, but as a nation entire, Embla was pleased with what she had found among these wilder-folk of the many Jochi tribes.

As such, Embla walked among the envoys herself, with her interpreter being Tybalt's own sister-herald Gerel. She spoke and listened and learned. She offered words of praise for beast and tools well-maintained, and words of admiration for feats of skill and style, and words of gratitude for explanations and tales well-told. All genuine. All for a purpose. A purpose that only one of her companions might have understand, had he lived.

Aslaug before her had journeyed into the unmapped south of Eruna, bringing back reports of primitive traditions and half-formed ideologies, ripe for enlightenment. The agents of the Pretender were already at work there, fostering such hate and resistance with their incompetence that there could be no doubt as to how eagerly understanding of Ylsmyr would be embraced. In the simple spirituality espoused by the Jochi, Embla beheld a virginal expanse of opportunity, awaiting impregnation by the true faith.

When Gerel told her that this kurultai was named Chigaqqar in honor of the very first khan Aqqar, whose name was then adopted by all who inherited this region, Embla spotted the thread of ancestor worship in the woven patterns of Jochi faith. It was more than enough for her to work with. Ylsmyr was as a father to the Risarvinnae, as well as husband to the Aslaug. She hardly needed to proselytize.

She was careful, of course. She would not be able to convert everyone here. Even trying would be to fail as poorly as the loathsome priests of the Pretender had in distant Binjala. All Embla needed to do was sow the seed. As generations passed, more Aslaug could follow her. Each one knowing of this seed. Each one ready to nurture it a little more. Each one killing the ignorance of the Jochi a little more. Each one hastening the dominance of Ylsmyr a little more.


Whilst Tybalt sat in silence with a number of old khans, wisely showing his own deference to their experience as leaders, it was Gareth's miserable duty to aid Malevoxa. He would rather have been almost anywhere else, including back in the Karpatens with a group of lunatics and poor people. Although he seemed to recall one of them had been trained as an accountant of some sort, which possibly suggested a streak of bad luck had struck before creativity would lead to an influx of wealth.

Or was he a legal executor? Gareth asked himself, trying to remember the details so as to distance himself from his current predicament. Bailiff, no that's obviously wrong, obviously wrong. Estates and property management? Banking, perhaps. One of types of broker? The...thing broker. Insurance? Sounds like a scam. Definitely related to accountancy, then.

Having successfully diverted his attention from the present, Gareth failed to respond to the hand that appeared before him, a worryingly sharp nail taking the opportunity to scrape itself along the soft flesh at the very border of cheek and eyelid. Suddenly back to his senses, Gareth recoiled less from this nail that now hovered directly in front of his eye, but from the coldness of the nail's owner.

"Please do not become so lost in thought on this matter that you miss more details of it," Malevoxa said, a warning hum in the back of her throat. "How would we help this unfortunate creature then?"

Gareth swallowed hard, as ever torn between lust for and terror of his bardic companion. He had difficulty at times separating the two emotions, which was unusual for him. Not even during his stint playing at royalty had they been so intertwined, and that had been with the very real potential of being the simultaneous target of a mundane civil war and vampiric assassins hanging over his head. Malevoxa had acted as a tutor then too...

Swiftly setting aside those thoughts, not wishing to test Malevoxa's patience further, Gareth refocused himself onto the issue he had been pressed into helping resolve. An issue named Katarin, one of the youngest of Tybalt's sisters. All he knew was that their cambion mother had essentially intended for the girl to a breeding slave, emotionally twisted into not just desiring this, but craving it - as might a lotus addict crave the flower. Katarin, for whatever reason, had fixated upon Tybalt specifically as the object of her hell-forged lust.

Malevoxa, also for whatever reason, had fixated upon trying to reverse this abominable indoctrination. Gareth knew better than to believe it was out of the goodness of her heart, but as much as he hated to admit it even to himself (especially to himself), healing Katarin of this affliction was one of those good deeds that was unequivocally worth doing for its own sake.

He took a deep breath, turned Katarin to face him again - and her head immediately swiveled to bring Tybalt back into view - and resumed trying to encourage her to think about her life. Gareth could appreciate now how her complete lack of interest in anything he had to say provided a remarkable insight in how his father must fell in dealing with him as a younger man.


Beyond time, Gennax

Aidan paced, looking worried. Marchosias watched him, for no other reason than it was something to do. pressed down on them both, though Aidan at least had the mercy of being dead. For the imp, each passing instant of Truetime was its own unscratchable itch, its own unfading ache. Existence on Núrion was bad enough, but this was a truth for all outsiders to the mortal world. Somehow this planar adjacency to his native one made it worse.

The comfort of the familiar, Marchosias realized. It is all the more terrible when it lies just beyond your grasp. I wonder how many devils have felt as I do now. Mere thousands, I would suspect.

He knew he could ask Ylsmyr-watze, but feared any answer from the larval god. This too was a revelation to him, of how some of his prey might feel. Answers were available through fairly minor spells of divination, well within the ability of common village priests or hedge-wizards, but so rarely did any mortal seem to seek them out. It made his job much easier, of course, but precisely because of this, Marchosias had often considered the eventuality of this changing, that he might adapt to the circumstance and maintain his positive record.

Now he knew, however. Knowledge was frightening. Knowledge of knowledge's frightfulness compounded upon itself. A recursive logical maze that would drive any mortal experiencing it to the brink of madness. Marchosias resolved it almost instantaneously. That was his advantage as a devil. He had been fashioned quite literally of refined Ontologic Lawfulness infused into a flesh-and-ichor body. Naturally, it was not even his original body.

That was another difference between his ilk and the unfinished shamblers of Núrion. They had but one life, one experience of reality's infinities, perceived dimly through the swirling murk of innocence growing at last to senility. Marchosias had once been a barely-formed lemur, a raw extrusion of soul energy barely touched by Ontological Forces, which had then been molded into a superior combat form for guard service. His exemplary, but dull, existence had resulted in the coveted lateral promotion to his current imp manifestation - physically weak, intellectually adept, and permitted the glories of corruption and seduction. Not that I have seen much in the way of benefit from that, he reflected morosely. Bullied into service as a petty warlock's familiar. I, Marchosias, stunted by binding pacts to a soul-pledge human of all things! This will delay my ascension by centuries, if I am lucky!

Another difference between devils and mortalkind. The former intrinsically strove to better themselves, to rise above their station and become something more, something greater. Even as a mindless lemure, a hellish glob of oozing shapes, Marchosias had sought out recognition for his deeds. And for them, he had been rewarded with sentience and power. Mortals, however, and even the elves? They required such peculiarities to do the same. Incentive, exhortation, promise, threat. They did not seek self-improvement for its own sake, and graciously accept the rewards for what they were, but perceived acquiring the rewards themselves as the objective of their frequently abortive efforts.

This was all perfectly obvious to the imp, indeed to all devils. They awoke to sentience with this knowledge, as they did with speech and logic and advanced motor function. Yet Marchosias sat here now, impossibly within the impassable seals of Gennax itself, observing the soul of a paladin who had been dragged to the bleakest of the three Hells. Killed, but not fallen. Servant of the Merciful One.

Paladins such as he do not abide by the natural state of things, Marchosias had to admit. That is a man who has a true and selfless faith. The capacity for martyrdom. As it was in the first days...

The imp's thoughts were interrupted by Aidan halting his pacing, as if the paladin had heard his thoughts. Expression hardening to illegibility, he marched firmly up to Ylsmyr-watze, and planting himself there such that he could not be ignored. Marchosias realized that Aidan had been thinking similar thoughts to himself all this time, and had come to a similar conclusion.

"I will not allow myself to drift in these mists and do nothing," Aidan declared sternly. "I do not know what actions are available for me to take, but if any good can come of a task I may perform, then I do not ask of you, but demand that you tell me what they may be. Upon my oath to Heshtail, and as a fellow prisoner of this wretched realm, I make this demand of you, Ylsmyr. Speak freely, lest I drag the words from your lips."


Marchosias flinched away from the pair, feeling incredibly vulnerable. The audacity of this dead soul astounded him. In the presence of a god, even one merely growing into the position, not even the insane would be so rude - or could be so rude, even if they had wished otherwise. It made no logical sense. It was a Thing Not Done. Yet there was Ylsmyr-watze, with naught but a gentle smile to confront this blasphemy.

"I can see why my wife is so fond of you, villtri," the god said to Aidan. "Few would dare speak as you did, even among those far mightier. Unfortunately, there are really only two things you can do in at the present time. If you refuse to do the first of those, that being nothing, the only alternative is to suffer."

Aidan seemed to brace himself, but did not budge otherwise, and Marchosias had to admire the man for this tenacity. This courage was not the false type usually forced upon him, for already they had seen how even divine protection against fear could be suppressed. This was the courage of one who knew exactly what awaited him and rightly feared it, but chose to accept it regardless.

Behind the paladin, a deeper darkness again pooled in the colossal mirror. The image manifesting itself there seemed no different to the first, at least superficially, but Marchosias could feel subtle variations in its aura of malice. This time, Aidan did not need to be thrown into the mirror by surprise, but was carried to it by thick ropes of ash-choked fog. He and the archfiend vanished immediately.

Ylsmyr-watze sighed heavily then. Marchosias flinched a second time, equally as unsettled by this as by Aidan's behavior. Curiosity, however, won the day here. He had seen things that ought to have been impossible, and whilst that should logically only be expected in the presence of Ylsmyr-watze, that did not preclude the desire to know why those things had occurred.

"Because the man's soul is in and by cosmic law must be subject to its own heartless punishment," came the answer to the unspoken question. "Paladin he is, but not always so, and not flawlessly. Acts of true evil and lesser immorality are not unknown to him, though he strives to overcome their temptation. As Sarpedon refined him to better understand good and evil, so now does Minos excoriate his spirit for these impulsive transgressions."

"He can count himself lucky then?" Marchosias asked hesitatingly. "To be subjected to this? To be made better? A purer servant of his god?"

A long pause, then a slow nod. "Disciplining the self is the most difficult of all tasks. Aidan has perhaps done more poorly at this since swearing his oaths of service. As a younger man he felt himself freer to criticize his failings. You know this to be the ancient flaw of paladins. Tautological morality. Their actions are moral because they are moral, and because they are moral they can only act morally. Aidan did not fall into this trap so fully as some have, yet he was not wholly free of it either."

"The agonies he is now experiencing will purify his soul of this weakness - and as he is already dead, he will endure to reflect upon it and the actions that brought this about. That does not mean that I enjoy sending him to those fractal torments. I cannot even soothe my conscience and justify doing so by saying that he asked for it. Aidan demanded I do so, and knew in his heart what would happen."


Two months earlier, Brightshade Rubicon

She could feel the deepness of this place extending even further into the unknown. It was a sensation in her gut, like a few too many mouthfuls of unripe fruit sitting heavily in her belly, or the foreknowledge of how another tankard of Davonian ale would make her feel tomorrow resting just as heavily upon her mind. That these simple chambers were but the uppermost outpost of an unimagined world below was a terrifying realization.

Once beyond that outer gateway, the rooms became faintly illumined by more than mere fungi, and the prismatic glow of gem-like encrustations were now the norm. Isolde swiftly realized this was for the benefit of those that lacked the true darkvision of the under-races and even the keen sight of elvenfolk, as the scurrying forms of servitors in the gloom told of the relative magnitude of this operation.

Brokk and Zammaz took up seated positions on one of the many broad plinths obviously meant for people of a reasonable stature, as there was only a single taller plinth for the use of the larger races. Isolde, less inclined to make herself more vulnerable in this place, remained standing and alert. Far too many unknowns were here, even discounting the withered minions of their host.

And what a host! she thought guardedly, obscuring it behind mist and stone, lest her mind betray her - though in truth, she feared this was but a pretense she offered herself, for the blackest of rumors had come to her from the dark elven occupiers of Zeland.

As if to confirm her fears, those pale eyes turned to her, inscrutable and alien. Isolde stared back. There was no hint of emotion that could be read from sight alone, for the one was too strange and the other was too hardened. Even the restless wriggling of the hideous tentacles where a mouth ought be gave nothing away. Was that a sign of anger at her impudence? Amusement? Coldly indifferent hunger, perhaps, was the most likely in all truth. Isolde did not know if the appetite of such a horror could ever be sated as she would understand it.

As their gazes held each other locked in combat, their fingers played out a different story. Hers stroked the hilts of her daggers, as if the motion was involuntary, instinctual, beyond the control of her rational and exposed mind. Its fingers, longer and more delicate yet also somehow crueler and more disturbing, sifted through pages of stacked vellum (and oh how desperately Isolde pushed her thoughts away from what possible leather these had been sourced) in search of its prize.

Isolde could tell she was losing this struggle. She had a powerful need to blink every so often, unlike her lidless foe. She needed at least some warmth to keep from a shiver, yet the other seemed impervious to the clammy chill. Most of all, she felt the absence of sure allies if the worst came to pass, whilst her opponent implied triumph even if beset by all three simultaneously. Taking all this into account, Isolde decided the only thing to do would be to continue this vain but valiant endeavor, and at least metaphorically spit in the face of this insurmountable danger.

Those ghastly eyes turned from her to the Loremasters, and she allowed herself to breathe freely again, counting this as a draw of sorts.

<She is a most impressive thrall,> the wordless understanding swelled in Isolde's mind. <Too much so to be my pay, as well you both knew. I would be offended by this ostentatious display of wealth were I a lesser creature.>


At the last count, seventeen Loremasters of their rank yet lived. Brokk, and through their sharing of learning, Zammaz now also, knew this to be an outdated number. Simple age had claimed several, misfortune had gathered others unto the afterlife, and at least one had been driven mad a century past and committed suicide, with two others vanishing in the resultant conflagration. The terrible truth was that the three assembled here were a significant minority, with far too much precious knowledge held in their heads alone for comfort.

Of them all, however, few were so highly regarded as this one. A single scroll might have held the names of all who had safeguarded such mysteries. Brokk truly counted himself blessed to share in these, no matter the terrible circumstances of his arrival here. They would complete the early negotiations and then the three would share the contents of their minds. So long as one them survived, the knowledge would endure to be passed on again and again. Privately, Brokk calculated the odds of survival for at least one of them had dropped to almost zero since the turning of the year.

<Why? >

The question was obvious when it came, as was the answer, and Brokk did not justify it with an answer. Zammaz, on the other hand, was less inclined to silence - perhaps wishing to show himself superior in front of Isolde - and spoke the words that would weaken their bargaining position. Though the gnome could not see the foolishness of this racial dispute, Isolde winced as he did so, for even she could put such things aside when it mattered the most.

<'No other', indeed,>> was the acknowledgment of this failure. <So what of the others? Do enlighten me, my peers.>

Brokk shook his head sadly, but acquiesced to the power play. "The Serpent of Twilight rose up in the Summervale. The Twins of Azure and Cyan went unto the Bitterest East. The Arch-Chaotician succumbed to bardic impulse. All others are the eternals of the Outer Planes and thusly incapable of acting in this unique instance."

<That the old snake in the grass finally bit is the most surprising of those. An unlucky outcome. Should it be considered provoked by your group, Ashknarzglimmsun? The elfking's prophecies, or at least the versions I have inscribed here, are less than clear on the matter. Your clarity of presence shall be appropriately appreciated.>

Brokk ignored the vellum sheet dangling in front of him, for it was now a mere history of events instead of a predictor of the same. Had he known of its contents in the preceding year, Belendale might have been spared its ravaging, or the very worst of it might have been averted. That King Baranwë had been acting on foresight was only to be expected, but Brokk's heart ached to learn that this foresight had been recorded elsewhere.

"You have access to the Mirror at Xura," Brokk forged on boldly. "More than anything else, it will be needed to bypass the protections. Even so, using it in such a way will ensure retribution. Repercussions must necessarily be...inevitable. That is our payment."

<Opportunity is not payment.>

Brokk nodded in agreement. "The payment is guaranteeing a successful binding."

He was one of the two dozen or so most well-read beings on the entirety of the Mortal Plane, but not even Brokk could read the answer behind those monochromatic orbs, as if he was but an initiate standing humiliated before a master he had presumed to question. He was forced to wait. Zammaz had less patience.

"Will you agree to this or not, Akustanza?" he demanded rudely, even dropping the polite form of speech.

Those unfeeling eyes turned to the gnome for but a moment, then returned to Brokk's. <A price has been agreed. The stars are right, and we of deep Yuggoth see the Voidworld once more.>

Brokk recalculated the chances of death. They were significantly higher than before.


Beyond time, Gennax

Aidan came to himself eventually, though pieces of him seemed to be missing. He tried, horribly in vain, to understand which ones. He could not even grasp the concept of what had been lost, and that scared him all the more. Shapes in the ite fog twisted into being, obviously falsehoods conjured by his injured mind, but no less cruel. These splinters of himself mocked him without mercy, a multitude of silent self-directed loathings poisoning his thoughts from without.

He staggered, the slight pressure at his side telling of the imp momentarily attempting to steady his balance, before it wisely moved aside. Aidan closed his eyes, trying to force the phantasms away. Yet without the proof of his eyes, their lie became all the more real. Clarities of illusion, they swarmed him. Accusing. Condemning. Decrying. Sapping his will to stand strong and accept all that might be brought to bear against him.

His soul hurt. He could not describe how that worked exactly, since his entire self was now essentially a discorporate soul owing to being dead and in a Hell, and not all of his self hurt. But he was absolutely sure that his soul hurt. It was damaged. Shattered and then crudely pieced back together, without any real care for or interest in how it was originally arranged.

"Minos is not so gentle as Sarpedon," said Ylsmyr to the tormented half-elf. "Ill deeds performed for their own sake are his demesne, and even for the most primordial progenitors, function inevitably reflects upon themselves. Consider this a revelation, Aidan of Zel: at the moment of his birth, Heshtail was more ruthless than his paladin was at the moment of your death. Store that truth within your heart, and do with it what you will."

Aidan gazed blankly at the larval ungod. It was so difficult to think. A spiritual agony wracked him that could not be overcome or ignored. He was missing a part of himself. Several parts, perhaps, that maybe mattered but maybe did not and he had no idea whether they did or did not and if he had any option should it be the former instead of the latter and why-

Everything disappeared into a gentle pale glow. His pain went along with the fog, with the delusions, with the great mirror, with the stones of Gennax themselves. Aidan was all there was. The impossible godling was not there, nor the imp against whom his living self had unknowingly warred so many times. It was just him.

A beautiful mercy. Aidan did not take it for granted. Momentarily free, he forced himself to take stock of his situation, and remind himself that he had been the one to initiate and demand his own torture. He had chosen to sacrifice himself on the altar of action, for which truly Hellish suffering had been both reward and punishment.

Ah, but there are many forms of suffering, are there not? Ylsmyr's voice sparked within his thoughts then. A great and grotesque infinity of them indeed, especially in Hell. Few are both able and willing to contest these. Perhaps not even a paladin of mercy, desirous of action?

Aidan's heart answered before his mind did. The glow faded and the truth of was restored. Ylsmyr wore a soft, sad smile that would not have looked out of place on a priest trying to comfort the parents of a dying child.

"So be it then."


The River of Fire coiled through the air before them, barely a country's length distant, and threatening to scorch them with each mountainous wave that crested nearby. Had he been alive, the scale of these surroundings might well have crushed his mind like an overripe fruit, for the Outer Planes were the realm of the true immortals, beyond even the resilient doom-bound shadows of elvenkind.

Aidan, once-slain and twice-tortured, was merely staggered by all he saw. These were things the unbound soul was, explicitly so in every theological doctrine he had ever studied, designed to comprehend. In crafting living beings, the gods had been careful to make them suitable for the unique conditions of the Material World, but as the essence of life had been drawn from the infinities far beyond Núrion, it was prepared to return when the time was right.

Even less affected was Marchosias. As a resident of the Outer Planes, all of this was an inherent part of existence, no more surprising or unusual than the rising of the sun or the wetness of water. Nonetheless, the imp had screwed up its face in disgust at the crawling shapes making their way to solid ground along the vast mooring chains that encircled the River of Fire. There was no more love lost between the disparate fiends of the Hells than there was between them and the celestials of the Heavens.

Marchosias, as a Barathean, could hardly help but be repulsed by the ite mercenary-fiends, whose loyalty was fickle and whose actions were driven not by selfishness rather than by duty. He had served, had he not, the maximum ten thousand years between ascension from lemure and to imp? He represented, did he not, the very pinnacle of devildom in responsibility? And he was still, was he not, under-appreciated and under-utilized by his so-called superiors despite this flawless record? Perhaps then...

"This lowly devil begs of you, most munificent Ylsmyr-watze," the imp said, in his most sickeningly obsequious tone. "That it may be permitted, though it be undeserving of such, a chance to demonstrate its limited quality and-"

Ylsmyr, looking faintly amused, interrupted. "Marchosias, go with Aidan. I will grant protection from the flames, but no more. If you want to impress me, bring me back alive the one with the head of a skinless ram. As for the stolen souls in their cages, just break the collars and I will send them into the deepest part of the Phlegethos that they may reach their intended afterlife in peace."

Paladin and imp nodded in silent, grateful assent. Eagerly, they turned and ran towards their prey. The great distance vanished to nothing for their charge, and Ylsmyr reclined against a thickened bank of fog to watch the melee ensue. He had already forgotten why he had thought to do this, or that he had thought to do this in the first place. He had no idea why a curiously lively dead half-elf and a very out-of-place imp were fighting a group of startled fiends at all.

Droll, Ylsmyr decided for no reason at all, as his attention started to wander.

The merest suggestion of a figure, somehow imposing and feminine, appeared and vanished at his side, nothing more than a trick of the shifting light against a particular patch of fog at that exact instant. Ylsmyr straightened up. He looked back over at the fight. He remembered enough now. Not for long, certainly, but the memory ought to keep until it was done.

"And if it does not, I have faith you will remind me again, my dear," he commented drily.

The purely random movement of the fog made one essentially imperceptibly darker patch appear to deliver a chastising blow to him, one full of exasperation and yet also, of genuine affection.


Two months earlier, Aqqardin Batisjin

Westwards in haste they travelled from the kurultai. The horse masters were a pleasant enough people if you caught them by surprise. It was successfully doing so that was the recurring problem, for this was ostensibly a very serious and important trek across the Dar, to a place of very serious and important heritage, and this surely meant that you yourself had to be very serious and important whilst journeying there.

Gareth solved this problem by waiting until the largest and most sour-faced warrior he could find rode past him, then carefully making a variety of rude noises in time with the hoofbeats. The other horsemen nudged each other very visibly, shaking their heads and tutting at this ignorant foreigner, and biting their lips to keep from grinning. Several faces, mostly belonging to the younger men barely out of boyhood, began to darken with the effort.

When they bothered to notice this and other such puerile jests, the women of the group would groan in a collective dismay, resigned to suffer again the childish foolishness of men who ought to know better. The sound, interestingly, was absolutely identical across the spectrum of their backgrounds. Malevoxa the exiled diva of Farland, Embla the berserker-priestess of Eruna, Gerel and Katarin the tieflings of Covak, the Jochi tribeswomen of a dozen family lines - all made the same disapproving noise, and shared the same wearied look between themselves.

Perhaps there was some fantastical societal secret waiting to be unearthed here, one that transcended the petty boundaries of culture and race and religion, but Gareth was not the person to begin such an excavation. He instead busied himself with overblown silent theatre, the contents of which might politely be termed 'provocative', or somewhat more honestly 'degenerate'. All of which were based, unsurprisingly, on his own life, and exaggerated to satyrical excess.

Language barriers were a common obstacle to performance art in the so-called civilized world, wherein the nuances of a tale could easily be lost or hideously misunderstood by audiences of differing background to the creator. Gareth, with the insight of the deranged, simply resorted to blunt force theatrical trauma. The Jochi loved every salacious moment.

He was a reciprocal guest, of course. When a particularly stone-faced Jochi began to act out one of their stories, one apparently well-known among their people, Gareth watched with genuine interest. The impenetrable, unchanging blankness on the man's face as the tale reached increasingly ridiculous heights only served to make the comedic elements all the funnier, and the occasional serious moment all the more impactful. Gareth even caught himself wiping away a tear at the emotional climax.

He decided he liked these people. All they were really missing was a grasp of modern fashion, but that was what trade routes and monopolies had been invented for - and what entrepreneurial heroes such as himself had been born for.


Westwards in haste they travelled from the kurultai. The tsigsdamdar were a pleasant enough people once you got past their eccentricities. The greatest difficulty lay in remembering the differences between them so as not to be confused. For instance, the two tawus seemed of a kind at first, but the smaller was in truth a woman who dazzled with finery and song, whereas normally the hens were drab and silent.

Turakina solved this problem by waiting until the largest and strangest tsisgdam, a towering bronze-skinned shamaness to judge by her fierce intensity, spoke to the people carefully, and asking questions of her. The interpreter had a loose grip on the language, but it was enough to begin with. The shamaness, for her part, was maternally patient in ensuring the concepts translated properly. Turakina was not alone in feeling called to this distant cousin of theirs, for how else might such a shared understanding of their faith be seen?

She was not the first to do so, but thought nothing strange of addressing this guest as egch, as sister, as she would for any woman in the clan. When they caught wind of this, the men laughed and shook their heads, perhaps saying to themselves what a foolishness it was of women to so readily to adopt one so different. Turakina did not mind, for surely the men were equally content not knowing what their womenfolk thought of their actions. And thus - a harmony in the world, the balancing of opposites, just as their newest sister spoke of.

There was even a growing appreciation for the Unloved Children, most of whom had been sired by Jochi or even Rolwal men enslaved to the Sahra Ganjyk (Ancestors grant only worms fill her womb! Turakina thought venomously, her heart aching with the memory of her loss), and who thus represented a type of accidental harmony awaiting to be drawn out. Indeed, many chastised themselves for not seeing this before. The most obvious clue, in the change the Unloved Children had undergone on reaching far-eastern Covak, ought to have been enough for them.

Turakina sought an additional sign, however, before making her next move. She had spoken and listened to her new sister, and thought about what might follow. It was not a thing that ought to be done lightly. Three days into their journey, an unexpected storm broke nearby, that for the sake of their horses they were compelled to shelter in a gully that had long been simply ridden past.

She heard the beautifully mournful cry of a male tawus-bird that evening, and in the morning before they rode out she caught sight of him rising into the sky. At his side, almost invisible by diversion behind that glorious tail of a thousand emerald eyes, flew a solitary dull brown hen. It was sign enough for her, though doubtless her mother would have disagreed. Her mother had never known to keep her silence, even to save herself. The Sahra Ganjyk had done such things...

Turakina forced these horrid memories away. She knew what she had to do now. Part of her was even looking forward to it, and she told herself sternly that this was not the point of it and not to get distracted. The future lay ahead, and if it was to be a harmonious and balanced one, she would need to do her part. The ancestors, perhaps this mysterious Ilzamir of her eastern sister among them, expected such duty.


Two months earlier, Brightshade Rubicon

The outer chambers of this vile place were the least hospitable, as was to be expected of anything anywhere not built for receiving guests, but Isolde was astonished to discover something terribly close to opulence deeper within. Long recliners, elegant drapes, exquisite statuary and carven furniture, painted porcelains of the most exotic cast, all gently illuminated by gemstone candelabras strategically hung from the ceiling. It swiftly became clear that these caves were part of a greater tunnel network that doubtless extended even further below the earth.

When their grotesque host departed for a while, and Brokk and Zammaz both lay down on the cushions and silks to sleep in comfort, Isolde forced herself to stay alert. She allowed the small luxury of resting amid the extravagance, but her eyes and ears remained keenly aware of all that happened. Her daggers were close to hand as the devolved horrors shambled in, trays of gleaming platters and shining goblets - a myriad delicate scents and hinted flavors wafting enticingly from their contents - balanced fretfully in their uncertain grip.

Isolde steeled herself when the master of this realm glided noiselessly into the room, its thralls hastily scurrying away the moment their respective duties were discharged. It sat down on a particularly tall-backed chair that appeared to have been fashioned from a single slab of obsidian, the dark surface shot through with jagged streaks of some red-gold mineral in ways that hurt to look at. It looked over at the stalwart halfling, inscrutable, silent, terrible.

<Why are you?> the abomination inquired of Isolde, its thoughts writhing inside her head.

"I choose it," Isolde hissed back, softly so as not to wake Brokk.

<What an exceptional thrall I might have in you,> it 'sighed' telepathically. <So few reliable records exist of hositan. It is difficult to maintain them for long. Why do dragons seek your enserfed out? >

Isolde smiled. "Our creator won a bet witnessed by the sun and moon." This was true. "Dragons just happened to be on the losing side." This was also true. "Now they cannot permit us to be slaves." This was not true.


It seemed less a question than a statement, and less a statement than a question, and the opposite of both conditions. Isolde could feel herself getting a headache trying to interpret the waves of conceptual not-imagery that washed over her mind each time this creature 'spoke' to her. Perhaps someone used to telepathic communication, whether innate or magical, would not suffer such a thing, but this was new to her brain and so was quite exacting. Still, she had started to give answers, and it would be churlish to stop now.

"Isolde Amero Ballussia. My very close and dear friend Brokk I think you know, and also the gnome Zammaz."

<I am Rilruriltam/Thought-Drinker/Akustanza. Attend.>

Isolde bristled to be given such an order, but then one of the shufflers hurried into view, and she realized that her host expressed its thoughts 'broadly', or perhaps 'expansively'. That she had been privy to the command did not mean that it was actually meant for her. Astonishingly, Isolde found herself considering the possibility that this Thought-Drinker (or Akustanza or whatever its name was) might actually be an especially bombastic and undisciplined member of its kind.

Either unable or, more likely, unwilling to focus its telepathy to specific individuals, she concluded. It communes to all in its range without prejudice or care, and expects them to siphon through the information to deduce the intended recipient for each piece. This thing is doing the psychic equivalent of shouting everything to all within earshot. Oh Bunga help me, it is a puffed-up petty aristocrat...which means I can use that.

There was clearly a learned element to differentiating intent, of course. Its thrall would not have come alone else, but as part of a pack. Isolde suspected the existence of a psychic bond between master and slave that would facilitate this at the same time as free will and rebellious instinct were suppressed. Her appraising gaze did not go unnoticed. She would later realize that what happened next had been a gruesome courtesy warning to avoid acting on any hostile ideas she might have.

Akustanza waved a hand at the dishes laid out before her. <Voidworlder foods will not last. Consume these and more will be brought for my other uninvited guests. I suspect you will find delicacies among them if you look. Perhaps turn away for a while first.>

With that kind of suggestion, Isolde instinctively focused more closely on what was happening nearby. The pitiful slave creature was not, as she had first thought, doing some curiously untimely tidying. In fact, it had been rearranging some of the furniture to be just a little further away from itself and its master than its height. And with that task complete, it knelt down before its master, head bowed. Unfortunately, Isolde understood what was about to happen too late to overcome the resultant shock.

She stared in horror as Akustanza extended its squirming tentacles around its slave's head, and tensed them - plunging the vile pseudolimbs into the skull and extracting pieces of the quivering brain within.


<Sprinter. Excelled in endurance. Outpaced rivals both on the short and on the long. No prize beyond recognition. Memories suffused with exuberance. >

The piece of brain disappeared into an unseen mouth behind the wriggling tentacles. Isolde tasted bile in her throat.

<A youthful indiscretion. Warmth of flesh upon flesh. Then cold leathery impacts. Arranged marriages do not take kindly to third parties. No regret can I taste. >

Another irreplaceable piece of history consumed, lost forever to provide a momentary sensory pleasure. Isolde shivered to hear the last rasping breath of the slave-meal.

<Exile. Flight into darkness. Enemies driving him away. A bitter tang of terror, layered upon by the sweet serenity of servitude. Competence over decades. >

The tentacles pulsed as one, extracting the remainder of the brain in a single swift motion. The dead slave collapsed, striking nothing but floor on the way down. Brokk and Zammaz remained unwoken, and Isolde remained nauseous.

<The host body started to fail. The nurtured brain would soon degrade. All that it was, lost without remark. Unfit for a thrall so capable and loyal. Forever and beyond now, it shall endure as a treasured component of my greater self. An immortality, Isolde of the Ballussia. No slow decay of grave-worm and corpse-fungus.>

Isolde swallowed hard. "I will make that argument to my next oyster."

<Attendants, clear. You may do so now if you wish,> Akustanza broad-thought. <Cultivars of animal and vegetable foodstuffs alike are brought to me as required. Voidworlders from above are rare, but I have thralls in need of their own nourishment.>

A slouching trio of said slaves appeared, each as pale and deformed as little else Isolde had seen, silently and efficiently performing their duties. One, a hulking creature that had perhaps been a troll or ogre in freedom, picked up the brainless corpse to dispose of. The other two, tiny and misshapen, were obviously gnomish in descent - and even Isolde could derive no satisfaction from seeing this monstrous degradation - and busied themselves cleaning remnant fluids and resetting the furniture to their master's satisfaction.

"There is much in the worlds above," Isolde said suddenly, trying to distract herself from the sight and sounds she had just witnessed. "What is the void to which we belong? Humans and elves I can understand perhaps...beneath an open endless sky. But the rest are more sensible, and live underground. As do you. There is even less space there for any void to exist."

Telepathic silence. Nonetheless, Isolde could tell this was because her query was being considered carefully, as was her suitability to be given an answer. What she could not tell was if Akustanza was deliberately stroking its tentacles over each other or if it was an automatic movement like the rising and falling of one's chest whilst breathing. They appeared somewhat more agitated, like water churning with fish below the surface, when their owner was engaged in thought. The grotesque display of the feeding had shown them to be capable of intensely delicate precision - and raw muscular power - when necessary.

<A world is more than physical space,> Akustanza replied after a short time, its tentacles twisting more and more quickly. <All that perceives carries its own world with it. Your worlds are empty of comprehension of what you perceive, and even more so of what you do not realize that you do not. Larval intelligences, fumbling helplessly through the infinite transcosmic kaleidoscopes of possibility.>

Isolde sniffed, a little put out. "So it is just a long-winded way of calling us stupid."


Hositan and horror stared at each other, one with offended irritation in her eyes and the other with nothing even remotely legible in its own. Their tasks complete, the slaves left them alone once more. Perhaps most beings would have found the resultant silence uncomfortable. Isolde had been trained for patience and silence by one of the best (or perhaps worst) of teachers, though, and the other was a creature of psychic power that did not need sound to speak. Both were exquisitely suited to silence. She did have one last question, however.

"What makes you capable of helping us?"

Rather than use its arms, Akustanza spread its tentacles outwards in a clear shrug. <Dekk accepts any priest, and one who may access the Mirror at Xura is needed for what you require. Pray to your maker, hositan, for what we intended shall involve him as much as my own patron. The walls of Gennax were of their mutual design, after all.>


Beyond time, Gennax

Sarissalalaliai, the self-titled Supreme Chthonic Admiral, had genuinely spent much of his fiendish life on one or another of the Five Cosmic Rivers as more than a mere mercenary for whatever petty interplanar conflict happened to be going on at any given time. He was a true entrepreneur of the Ninefold Firmament, bearing writs of passage honored by all save the wild demons of Malor and the equally erratic toad-beasts of Nemux.

He had been hired by angels and devils and lost elf-spirits. He had been paid for his competence and excellence and reputation. He had been hunted by inferior competitors too obsessed with a racial preoccupation for economic flexibility to understand the brilliance of positive reliability. For despite being a creature born of the distilled essence of unapologetically amoral Evil, Sarissilalaliai had unbound himself of these limitations, and of his own free will chose to walk the path of Law and Order.

Therefore, when his slavers were suddenly assaulted by a misplaced imp and a remarkably active independent soul with a large warhammer and offensively red hair, both of them casting Chaotic aspersions against his character, he was very offended. He had worked hard to get to where he was now, and it seemed decidedly uncourteous that these two would ignore that for the sake of cheap and unimaginative jibes.

Imp and soul sped up the chains to the improvised Soulharbor without regard for the fires. The strength of the protections this implied stupefied the slavers. One of his newer crew, a promising quartermaster with a real head for logistics, was unceremoniously hurled from the craft into the Phlegethos itself. They all felt that death, for from that there could be no return. Sarissalalaliai barked an angry command before any more were lost, and his crew rallied to repel these worrisome boarders.

All knew better than to assume this would be an easy battle. Quietly, many privately wondered if their immortality was about to be curtailed. Two more found this fear proven true within seconds, as the free soul swept both clear of the deck with a mighty swing of its hammer. A holy light had sprung up around it that outshone even the Phlegethos, a light that blazed with the power of miracle, a light that told of a doom come at last.

Sarissalalaliai directed his dying crew as best he was able, commanding by name and swift instruction, extending their lives a short while longer. Under his guidance, they moved with grace and skill, and fought with unrelenting courage. Nonetheless, the soul could not be stopped. Spears shattered against elf-mail hidden beneath the primitive cloths it wore, and neither sword nor axe could bite deeply enough to cripple it.

All the while, its unlikely imp companion vanished and reappeared repeatedly, spreading confusion through the ranks with surgical strikes, or simply allowing itself to be tripped over to foil a flanking charge. Then a certain piece of contraband from the forges of Avernus caught its eye, and Sarissalalaliai could not help but marvel at the audacity of the little fiend. The hellish glaive was five times its size, weighted for a devil many times stronger, and of a design that required extensive martial training to use effectively in any case.

The imp simply let it fall to the deck, took to the air and used its tail to spin the glaive in circles. Cunningly, the imp used its aerial inertia to drag the glaive a few feet at a time in the direction it was needed most, overcoming the weight disparity through sheer intelligent application of basic physics. The blade was also eager to shed blood again. It had spent many centuries being shunted off from one owner to another without ever seeing actual battle. Ankles were just enough to excite its hunger, and several of the slavers fell victim to its whirling assault.

It was over in perhaps three minutes, perhaps four. The soul might have conceivably been exhausted had the combat lasted a proper length of time, but it had not allowed that risk. Whenever one of the crew became even momentarily vulnerable, the soul had simply overwhelmed them with immense strength - far too much strength, Sarissalalaliai thought, for what appeared to be a mere half-elf - and cast them into the fire. Those few not thrown aside were those efficiently incapacitated and ruthlessly executed by the imp.

Then he was alone. Soul and imp faced him now, after having dispatched nearly two dozen fiends in open battle. He noted that they did not move to slay him at once also, with the imp actually stepping back to begin the process of freeing his cargo. This presented a slim chance for his own survival. Sarissalalaliai did not like having to do this, but he had learned to take defeat in its stride over the course of his long life just as he had victory.

"I offer my surrender without condition," he said in formal, polite tones. "If you intend my death, I merely request, as a courtesy and no more, a duel upon solid ground when we are rested."


Paladin and imp sat in silence on the stone of Gennax, watching from a distance as the fiend they had brought back spoke privately to Ylsmyr. It seemed to be answering questions, based on Ylmsyr's quizzical expression and its own hesitating, long segments of speech. The details of the exchange were not for them to know, and at that precise moment in time, both were entirely content with that.

"You were glowing," Marchosias remarked suddenly.

Aidan nodded. "Not something I did. Ylsmyr only said he would protect against the fires. I can only judge based on what Embla has told me. Well, that and on how I have seen her act. I don't think, if he forgot what he was doing, he'd go on to make us stronger."

They returned to silence for a while longer, thinking on this. Marchosias fully believed that made sense. His own superiors would certainly not extend any more aid than had been explicitly agreed upon, and neither celestial nor mortal musings on morality could reasonably apply where the divine was actively involved. The little devil was in no doubt that a divine power had reached out and touched Aidan aboard the slaver raft. He was merely uncertain as to which divine power that had been - and how they had accomplished this.

"Gennax is protected by a tripartite barrier," Marchosias stated eventually. "Proof against even the Walker-in-Darkness. No god of the Heavens, the Hells, or the Liminal Planes could bypass it. Where they fail, what else could succeed?"

Aidan shrugged. "I studied relatively little theology during my training. I heard some argue that Dekk possesses a power as far beyond that of the other gods as they do by comparison to us. To mortals, I mean. They said it was only because he truly exemplified cosmic neutrality that he did not wield that power more actively. Fine. I accept that. Quite a big problem there, however."

"You serve Heshtail, not Dekk," Marchosias summarized the problem neatly.

They paused in their considerations again. Aidan felt quite relieved to learn that even the true immortals could be perplexed by miracles. His faith in the ineffable workings of the gods was only validated by this, rather than shaken, and he thought again of that night in far-off Daven when he reswore his oath in a loud and impromptu fashion.

A weight pressed upon his mind. The ashen fog of closed in on him slightly, eager to sap his will and leech him of all hope. Marchosias shifted uneasily next to him, sensing the change. Aidan frowned. He had been thinking of that time in his life more and more of late, markedly more so with each return from his fractal torments. The primogenitor mirror fiends had splintered his awareness in a way he could barely understand, but which had left a spiritual mark upon him.

Almost from the very beginning, Aidan now thought, had there not been signs of an enemy working in the shadows against them all? He remembered the terrible atonality of his dear brother Cirne, a Living Martyr of the forbidden Zelish temples, summoning devil and demon against him as a test of his worth as a paladin. Then, he had merely brushed it off as an expected consequence of the terrible job. Now he wondered if something else had puppetted Cirne, in time leaving him the insensate husk he now was.

Then there was the hints of fiendish influence on the lake crossing, with the unseasonal storm that birthed an abatadh to drown them also. Then after that, Tarsus the blind oracle, who hinted at a curse that touched more than just an Anarian demon-wolf it had been made for.

And was there not also the lich of Dessingrove with an open portal to itself? Also, the outcast angel Zaphkiel beneath Kale, and the unique sorcery that had girded the Dreaming Pit of the oldest vampires? Aidan could even argue to himself that the Serpent of Twilight had been another such extraplanar obstacle on their path, set there for some unknowable reason.

Then a more profoundly terrible thought occurred to him, a thought so monstrous in implication he blurted it out aloud in a strangled gasp: "Unless it was our path that was set there."

Marchosias looked the obvious question at him, and Aidan managed to pull himself together long enough to explain his dreadful suspicion. At first, the imp found nothing odd in the coincidences and possibilities of manipulation. Such things were not merely commonplace, but inherent to life in Barathus, and it took a few minutes for the sheer improbability of the sequence of events to really sink in.

Then the imp too was struck by a certain memory. "I was dispatched as a familiar with a customized contract. The usual rites of summoning and binding were not adhered to."

He shuddered with remembered terror, almost able to feel the danger of that great horned devil towering above him, the malebranche bullying him by sheer presence into signing the non-standard agreement without reading it first.

"My usual overseer had been replaced," Marchosias recalled, spotting the thread and pulling on it. "A far greater devil was performing this routine, inconsequential, subordinate action. I was tasked with assembling a coven to deal with an irritant. An unspecified irritant of some kind. After your group set the guloguts on us, I thought YOU were said irritant."

Paladin and imp sat together in silence upon the stones of Gennax. They had only begun to grasp the strings by which they were puppetted.