The Adamdar Spring

Part Five

By R. Krommydas

Giant Spider


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

Isolde had very little in the way of good things to say, at this particular moment regarding pretty much anything and everything. That said, she had to admit it was remarkably satisfying to walk into the subterranean lair of some eldritch monstrosity and not be confronted with overblown architecture and decoration, or otherwise pressured by cacophonous melodies and histrionic speeches from whatever awaited within.

Akustanza had even issued a command, either unexpectedly 'quietly' or as a standing order, that his various misbegotten slaves were all tucked away and unseen, so that their physical and moral hideousness was not on display. The stark simplicitly of this chamber was a very welcome relief to the usual ghastliness that was traditional. Her (relative) good mood soured a little on seeing the warlock, however. He was precisely the sort of creature that she expected of such a place.

Garish robes with skull motifs and a ridiculous collar that both scraped his earlobes and was very unnecessarily open to his navel, revealing the depressing spirals and helices patterned on his tunic. He was festooned in costume jewelry, of less value than the individual pieces due to the shoddiness of their craftsmanship. Melted down into scrap it might fetch a few coins, but Isolde doubted it would fetch enough to justify the time and effort required.

She did manage to hold back a sigh on seeing the terrible makeup, especially the eye shadow, which coupled with his predictable goatee and sharp eyebrows to give him the appearance of an unemployed theatrical harlequin. There was just no need for it, especially if it was going to be done so...amateurishly.

A pendant hung about his neck, formed of twelve rings of moonstone layered over each other with quicksilver links. In each ring, the impression of an alien landscape glimmered for a bare instant, alluring but phantasmal, so that one would be forced to gaze upon the more intently to dispel their doubts and thus be drowned in its lunar embrace.

Now that is obviously magical, Isolde nodded knowingly. And probably horrifically dangerous. I'm not touching that no matter how valuable it is.

All that was missing was the classic 'dancing flames in the palms' trick the truly boring inevitably tried to pull, as if the average child did not know of such fundamental prestidigitation. If there was a tormented voice screaming prophecy from within the fires or something, that might at least show some basic competence in combining basic spells for a greater effect. But no, they never even did that, and Isolde was sick to death of the uninspired charade.

He does have a respectable expression of outrage, Isolde admitted. I'll give him that much and no more. If I didn't know better, I'd say that I'd personally wronged him and his dreams are now full of my suffering in retribution.

Akustanza wasted no time with the introductions.

What a stupid name, Isolde thought, politely smiling at the puffed-up buffoon. It even sounds like a made-up hedge wizard's name. No imagination. No imagination whatsoever.


Brokk felt his heart stop for a moment, the shock realisation hitting him like a warhammer. With a deep breath, he forced himself to remain calm and keep his expression as politely neutral as possible. There could be no doubt about it, none at all. That warlock, as pompous and preening as he obviously was, could not be mistaken for anything or anyone else.

About his neck, the Twelve Moons Periapt hung openly. Someone unversed in its history might assume anyone could do so, but Brokk knew better. Anyone who tried to wield it in ignorance would suffer consequences-- and of course, there were twelve to choose from-- and so only a person privy to certain ancient mysteries could do as this Naxartes now did.

He remembered Aidan telling them, in another life it seemed now, of the warlock coven that had hired them to deal with the source of the plagues in the Ruin Woods. At the time, he had not given any thought to their name. Covens of that sort usually had some smattering of antiquarian knowledge here and there, and naming themselves after the Twelve Moons had not stood out to Brokk as particularly strange.

Yet here was a warlock wearing the Twelve Moons Periapt. There could be no coincidence. The coven, Brokk knew, had been destroyed shortly after their task was completed. Again, nothing especially unusual there. For a survivor to be here, with that item openly displayed, with the very particular quest Brokk was upon...and the prophetic words of the blind oracle Tarsus echoing in his thoughts once again.

Know that your recovery comes by moonlight, Tarsus had foretold. And that some locks hold more tightly without keys.

He could see the path that had led him to this point now, and he marveled at the strands of fate that had been so woven to this culmination. Of course it would be the power behind the Twelve Moons coven that had called him and his friends into Daven. Of course it would be the same who was spoken of in divinatory riddle as they sought healing for his recurring weakness. Of course it would be here, now, in his time of need, that it all came together.

The danger, the price, of the Mirror at Xura had been one Brokk had been willing to suffer. It had been the only option. Aidan was beyond all mortal reach, that much his magic had been able to reveal. Even had the mightiest priests of the Belendale survived the fight against the Serpent of Twilight, or proven to number among the grotesque secret society seeking to invert the Dark Occupation upon its perpetrators and commit a far greater atrocity, they could not have brought Aidan back from whatever afterlife he was now trapped in.

The Twelve Moons Periapt being here changed all that. Its rings would focus the danger, set the conditions required by the Mirror, dismiss all terrible possibility in favor of absolute certainty. Brokk was not so stupid as to believe an absolute was necessarily the better option, but hope flowered in his heart again.

Janora was a distant deity, even to her most devout clergy. Her neutrality in all things mortal and divine was legendary, surpassed only by Dekk himself. Of course she would weave a pattern of fate in such a way. It was obvious even to Brokk's theologically-untrained eye. There would still be a struggle ahead, for to do otherwise would be to show undue favoritism...

Yet I no longer fear what awaits, Brokk understood. Fear has passed over and beyond me, so that only the certainty of I remains. This can be done.


Sag Zammaz wished he could grind his teeth against the halfling's bones rather than each other, for she had gloated over unravelling Akustanza's deceptive wordplay before he had. Oh she had thought herself subtle enough that he had not noticed her condescending, hateful looks from the corner of her eye, or the disgustingly self-satisfied way her lips curled up at the edges.

He knew it was only because he was an honorable and disciplined man that the realization had passed him by, and that it was only because she was a slippery and rot-tongued wretch that the truth had occurred to her first. It wounded his very soul to admit that a vile little hositan gutter runner was perhaps better suited to the twisted and unclean world he and his were forced to live in.

A reckoning shall come, Zammaz promised himself. Once the castes are overthrown, the hositan and the dwarves shall pay for turning their backs on us. When your closest allies abandon you out of ignorance, what choice but crushing isolation?

That over the centuries, gnomes from every caste had ventured out of Sheltinnobortanu and even made good lives for themselves, did not matter to Zammaz at this moment. The perceived injustice of the entirety of his people being forced into seclusion was logically preferable to the truth of their willing self-segregation and inevitable resulting degeneration.

The tragedy for Zammaz was not that he had escaped the ravages of mutation so common to the gnomish race. The tragedy was that his disease had not manifested physically, but invisibly as a paranoia and a tendency towards self-delusion. A persecution complex bolstered by undeniably great intelligence and by pride of his innate sorcerous power, giving him respect and influence beyond his low birth-- that, and no more, was his real sickness.

A part of him knew this. An unacknowledged part he had suppressed brutally, punishing himself for daring to consider such a thing. Worse still, his fellow Loremasters knew. Had they been mere foot soldiers in the Order, destined to die to further the glorious cause of their founder, Zammaz would not have been troubled by this. But they were peers. Peers had to live, to safeguard all knowledge, to spread it among themselves that no one death could steal away a discovery.

Zammaz could not let them spread the truth about himself, not when he could not even admit that truth to himself. Zammaz could also not justify any action against them, for his oaths as a Loremaster took precedence over all else. He felt himself trapped. He was trapped. He knew it. They knew it. Everyone knew that everyone knew.

But there was that warlock. Warlocks were known to make deals - that was how they became warlocks in the first place. Zammaz knew their patrons had certain options available to them that even the mightiest of wizards lacked. Perhaps a loophole could be found?


Naxartes boiled with rage, barely able to contain himself from slaughtering the abominable duo within his grasp. All his other thoughts had vanished. The infuriating ineptitude of his familiar? No longer a concern. The chthonic malaise induced by this location? Snuffed out instantly. The awesome power of the Twelve Moons Periapt, the driving urge to find it, though not use it but return it to some distant place? Suppressed, dispelled, gone without a trace.

All that mattered was avenging the countless insults to his person that these vile squat things had inflicted. The very plainness of the halfling was an offense now, for well he saw how it was a veneer for the devious treachery within. The withered appearance of the dwarf was its own foul curse upon him, seeking to convince that there was no more stable a mind there than there was a body.

He felt his fury scorching him from the inside out, commanding obliteration. There could be no alternative, no other recourse, but immediate calamitous wrath. And with this understanding came a rising sense of control, quenching the flames of his hurt. He was no pathetic acolyte or petty initiate, unable to rein in his base impulses to the detriment of his true purpose. He was Naxartes, last survivor of the Twelve Moons coven for a reason.

With a heroic effort of will, he forced his emotions back into control. There would be plenty of time for his revenge later. For now, however, Naxartes was once again entirely focused upon his own goals. The halfling, sneering at him such that a lesser mind would believe her ignorant of their enmity, and the dwarf, his eyes wide with envious lust at the self-evident power before him, would learn the true meaning of torment in due course.

The gnome was of no consequence in and of itself, but Naxartes knew well that if it was in any way consorting with his mortal foes, its death was required on principle. Naxartes understood that this logic would also require the death of Akustanza, but he was no slave to mere logic when any evaluation through higher reasoning would reveal that such an execution would not be worth the cost in time and effort.

Not personally worth it, Naxartes considered the option that had suddenly occurred. But I can arrange its demise through a simple message to the correct party.

Pleased by the thought, gratified by his genius, Naxartes settled himself into the mindset that patience was indeed ideal. He could permit himself annoyance at these insects biting at him, but he would not lose his temper with them. When the appropriate time came, he would merely swat them as they deserved.

It surely could not be so difficult for one such as himself? After all, he had endured a far greater humiliation in restraining himself from scouring the impotent coven that had denied his talent for much longer than he had been vexed by these enemies. But finally, his patience had been vindicated then, as it would be this time also.

Plastering the gracious smile of the master lecturing the student across his face, Naxartes gave the doomed triad a courteous nod of acknowledgement. They were suitably impressed by his presentation to be awed into silence. He decided that would be tolerable for the next few days.


One week earlier, somewhere below Taungpyidar

Gareth had never expected this part of the journey to be easy, and when he had said his sarcastic fare-thee-wells to the backs of the Rolwal guides, he had foreseen the worst. Yet contrary to all expectation, Malevoxa had taken the situation with astonishing grace. She seemed ready and eager to compose many an aria or monologue about this, her experimental melodies serving as a constant accompaniment to their travels.

Part of it was the gods-blessed fact that the tunnel system they had entered was very spacious, with clear signs of regular passage after they had left the initial caves. That had been worrying, until the actual occupants were discovered. At that point, it became terrifying. Dozens of bright, beady eyes staring back at them in shock, sharp points and curves glinting in torchlight from iron tools carried in scaly clawed hands.

Embla had squealed, clapping her hands excitedly like a little girl given her first doll. The eyes had blinked and, with a scrabbling of claws against dirt, the mass of kobolds had fled into the walls and floor. In seconds, the great underground highway for these industrious little delvers emptied of all save the gigantic trespassers from the surface world.

Familiar with the stories, Gareth was all for abandoning the mission outright. Uninvited passage through kobold territory was a death sentence. Entire armies could vanish into the earth if they delayed too long or otherwise strayed into sacred territory.

At least dragons or ravaging hordes might be stupid enough to fight honorably-- kobolds were the sneakiest, trickiest, dirtiest, most outright lethal, side-thinking, murderous fighters in their own environment that a man like Gareth could admire. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with them.

Of all things, however, it had been Embla calling out a name that had drawn the little horrors out of their escape tunnels. Not all the way out, initially, just enough to peer in suspicion at these lumbering intruders. Gareth thought he remembered certain tales regarding that name, of an orc reaver who had grown to power during the Dark Occupation and even inspired a civil war in the distant orcish homeland.

For whatever reason, that name, Tamarrick, was known to Embla and these kobolds also. Their movements were shadowed for several days, and all the while Embla would make encouraging noises if ever she caught sight or sound, real or imagined, of a watchful kobold. Whether or why this worked, Gareth had no clue, but he was happy to attribute to this any absence of ambush.

On the sixth day below ground, Gareth awoke to a chittering exchange. Embla, pitching her voice to be as soft and gentle as possible, was speaking in a kind of degraded Kelevan patois liberally sprinkled with fragments of Kalais, Zelish Common (but nothing Gareth could identify as uniquely Orlander) and even stomach-churning utterances from the accursed Dark Speech. The kobold she was talking to responded much in kind.

From then on, Gareth resolved to stop questioning the lunacy of the circumstances he found himself in. It was difficult to justify continuing to do so when a troop of three tiefling siblings, a Farlandic diva possibly in league with the God of Death, a horsewoman from the Wild Lands, an Erunian giantess, and himself were being led through a metropolitan tunnel network underneath the Wild Lands by a kobold escort.

Especially when the aforementioned Erunian apparently viewed those kobolds in the same way some society ladies in the Kalais royal court viewed their inbred yapping bastard-dogs that they carried around in a purse. Every time Embla looked away from the kobolds, Gareth could see a big stupid grin on her face.

Sanity is, without a doubt, Gareth decided a little unhappily. Most definitely recusing itself from reality. Now why do I feel that's a common sentiment of mine?



Sanity is, without a doubt, Gareth decided a little unhappily. Most definitely recusing itself from reality. Now thank the gods that's not a common sentiment of mine!

The arrangements had all been made, the stage set and awaiting his performance, and then the whole thing had nearly come crashing down around him. All it had taken was Sybille reminiscing about her husband's peculiar habits to send Gareth into a panic. The intense comtessa had taken hold of him, erotically powerful when she wanted to be, and stared into his darting eyes as she tried to soothe him.

In all his excitement over his devised plan, Gareth had simply forgotten one of the very problems he himself had tried to bring up at the start of this charade. Vampires were predators, and they knew their prey well. Wanting to flush them and their conspirators, or at least some of each, out into the open was all well and good... but he had not taken that problem into account during the planning phase.

So now he was standing in front of Sybille, completely naked and bathed in moonlight, whilst she tried to guide him through the mannerisms her husband had developed in an attempt to hide his newly vampiric nature. The worst thing was to suppress his shivering from the cold, for that was both wholly involuntary and an entirely mortal action.

"You must be aware of every window and every potential reflective surface at all times," Sybille explained yet again. "Even if you have already passed by it and are safe from observation, you are never safe from observation. If you should have to pause in your step for a moment, or take some steps back for any reason, you may be caught."

"Remember, another vampire will be exactly as aware as you must seem to be. Vampire senses are so much more heightened than yours. The slightest failing will give you away. You must even learn to breathe differently lest your life stands out."

The lessons lasted many hours at a time, and between those and his daylight pretense as King Gaidan, Gareth found himself nearing a breaking point. Ironically, Sybille thought that this would help legitimize his performance. The trick would be to arrange his surroundings during the day as if he were a new vampire, with sudden changes to accommodate for or eliminate risks as they occurred.

For instance, his judicial sessions would no longer require those stifling fires to be lit, as Gaidan had just now come to the decision that this was an expense the crown might better put to use elsewhere. Similarly, the royal silver could be auctioned off to raise funds for public development projects.

"Nothing like irrigation canals or suchlike, I take it?" Gareth said jokingly. "No chance of getting the Minister of Agriculture on side this year?"

Sybille sniffed, but there was a hint of a smile. "Certainly not. Not even the stupidest vampire would want more running water anywhere close to their lair. And commoner's cuisine relies far too much on garlic for flavor as it is. Even the palace would be full of it, but thankfully Gaidan had his ulcers. That smell always stuck in my gowns to the point of making me ill with it."

Gareth moaned in genuine disappointment. "And don't think I'm not annoyed by that as well! I really do miss the taste, you know."

"You can use that for added authenticity," Sybille said. "Gaidan loved it too, but for his health he had to give it up. A fresh vampire will not have ulcers, of course, but their mortal longing will still linger for a time. Keep complaining about the lack and expressing a desire to have it brought back in. Everyone will say how concerned they are for your health and how important you are to them all, so no garlic will appear."


Maestra Urbanillo went on the warpath, truly living up to her nickname, though nobody was so brave as to risk speaking it when she was near enough to hear. Gareth merely counted himself lucky that he wasn't the target of her fury. He wasn't entirely sure what hadn't lived up to the Maestra's standards this time, but so long as the result was what he was aiming for it to be, he was willing to let others suffer for the victory.

"Am I intended to demean myself with an inferior performance merely to appeal to the plebeian tastes of these cultural invalids?"

He could hear her raging from three rooms and two corridors away, which was helped by the pair of them being separated by only twenty or so feet, thin windows, and a flower garden between the two with no trees to catch the sound. Gareth wondered if any of the flowers would spontaneously wither if the diatribe lasted long enough.

"Certainly the aesthetic of the venue is not in question. I regret only the number of guests render the more attractive option of a pigsty unavailable!"

Gareth felt that was a little harsh on the average pigsty. He had spent more than one cold night curled up inside them, on several memorable occasions finding it more pleasant than the inn or boarding house to which it was attached. He certainly found the company of a hog preferential to most of the council members he was required to deal with each day. At least the pigs did not willingly ingest their own droppings and spray them out at people like vile nuggets of wisdom.

"And perhaps I could settle for an untuned harpsichord cobbled together by a blind goblin with lotus addiction. That would surely complete the ensemble in terms of quality."

There may have been some truth to that, Gareth had to concede. He was no connoisseur of the musical arts, but he knew what was good and he knew what was dreadful, and he knew that the current abilities of the musicians in the court's employ did not fall on the former side. A general malaise seemed to have gripped them in recent months, with no apparent cause or cure.

"Have these seamstresses been using their feet? Look at the state of this! If this is embroidery fit for royal eyes, all the world is better off dead!"

That seemed a little extreme. Of course, extreme is what everybody acknowledged the Maestra to be. In his role as King Gaidan, Gareth had needed to read a number of reports delivered by his spymaster. All those concerning Maestra Urbanillo, in particular her flight from Farland to exile in Kale, held the implication of certain blasphemous proclivities. Nothing could be proved. Not even the rogue inquisitors of Neltak had dared investigate the rumors of heresy following Maestra Urbanillo.

"Were we to have an elven delegation I would be concerned. Concerned at how they justify this pathetic excuse for artistry!"

Gareth could sympathize with that. For better or worse, elves had a reputation when it came to their cultural contributions. Opinions on these contributions typically ranged from mediocre, in Gareth's experience, to remarkable, but almost never to magnificent or to sublime. The general consensus among the common folk, whether human or any other race bar the elven, was that the artistic palette of an elf was only suitable for an elf. That said, Gareth could not think of any Kelevan or Davonian complaints, so it was possibly just a Kalais critique.

"And these ghastly suggestions! Compositionally grotesque. They ask for a sonata quasi una fantasia, a stirring Mondscheinsonate. This is a Mondscheissonate and no more!"

Gareth giggled at the obscene wordplay. He wondered how many other languages such a pun could work in, and concluded it was probably no more than five or six in all the world. Kelevan was not a properly civilized language like Kalais, but it had its moments here and there. That was probably one of those which was exquisite when heard natively, but crude in translation. Either way, if this was the start of the Maestra getting foul-mouthed, he might really enjoy the next few hours. Grinning in anticipation, he settled in for what proved to be a delightfully diversionary afternoon.


"What we have here is a failure to communicate," Milon said icily. "I have failed to communicate exactly how much danger Kale and yourself are in. You have failed to communicate exactly how hosting a masquerade ball will extricate either from this predicament."

Gareth tried to hide his nervousness. Milon was the real power in Kale, vampire plot or not, and Gareth was merely pretending to be the king. Sure, he could be brave and heroic when nobody was watching, but in the presence of that chill gaze, his courage sought only to fail him. He had to endure this, or else it was all for naught.

"None of us want me in this position," he started, and was rewarded with a grudging nod. "So the best thing is for us to find the threats and eliminate them."

"We are already trying to do that," Milon growled. "Why is this madness a more suitable option to my own methods?"

"Because we are dealing with things that want power," Gareth improvised frantically. "And that means they will be drawn to wherever power is most concentrated in their favor. So when I pretend to be Gaidan recently turned into a vampire, they will necessarily come to see if they can take any advantage of this situation."

Milon clicked his tongue in irritation, acknowledging the logic. "Not all of the conspirators will reveal themselves, or be revealed despite their efforts. We can still potentially cripple their operation though..."

Gareth bit back a relieved sigh, and instead sank back onto the throne. He tried to make it seem as though it were merely a relaxed slouch, giving the impression of serene confidence, but his disrespectful posture was enough for Milon to bark a wordless order at him. Gareth sat up with the speed of a scolded child, and with much the same confusion at how his body had obeyed the command before his mind had fully processed it.

Hiding her smile behind a hand in ladylike fashion, Sybille stepped slightly forwards, so that she was not quite between the pair, but nor was she enough to one side to be easily ignored. Milon noted the way Gareth's eyes automatically flicked over to her, sliding up and down in a swift and only partially lecherous appraisal, before returning to a more proper position.

"It has been long enough for Gaidan to mourn privately," Milon said slowly. "I can arrange for an attack to be staged. In the aftermath, I imagine Gaidan would want to seek the comfort of one who knows him well. That will explain both the ruse and your wandering eyes."

"Brother mine, one of these days you will go too far," Sybille protested, though all three of them it was merely for the sake of appearances. "I am loyal servant to His Majesty, and still married besides! The rumors surrounding my husband are entirely fabricated."

"Until I speak to the clerics regarding an annulment," Milon nodded. "I have been meaning to get around to that. Thank you for reminding me. Now, before we finish here, I want to go over this ridiculous plan one more time..."


One week earlier, somewhere beneath Taungpyidar

They had made excellent time, passing entirely through the kobold territory in just a couple of days, and even given directions on how to avoid some of the dangers deeper down. The kobolds had not explored much beyond certain points, apparently due to losing too many of them to predators, but they had enough information to make the rest of the journey much easier.

The kobolds were also growing nervous. These lower regions were not regularly patrolled to keep them clear of any danger rising from below, and there was always a good chance that some monster or another had taken the opportunity to nest here. Keeping them from dwelling on this morbidity seemed like a good idea at the time.

Extremely carefully, as per Gareth's advice, Gerel had encouraged Malevoxa to question them on various topics. The diva had agreed, persuaded by the possibility of using this material in a later production. She did, however, point out that they were all very lucky she was one of those bards who had actually developed her magic in the direction needed for this.

That meant nothing to them-- magic was magic, after all-- and so they simply nodded as if they had understood and agreed that it was very lucky indeed. So, whenever they stopped for a rest, Malevoxa would take a pinch of soot and salt, incinerate them with a syllable that hummed with power, and begin a proper conversation with the kobolds for the next hour.

There were several revelations that came from this. The tieflings learned that their cambion mother had indeed reached the surface through this cave system. Embla confirmed that these were the same kobolds that had so helpfully rebelled in Dessingrove, and that they had done so because they had heard Aidan citing Tamarrick as the cause of his fluency in the Dark Speech.

Malevoxa was especially pleased to hear this, for she had never been able to extricate the tale from Aidan of how or even why a paladin spoke that disgusting language as if he were native to it. When she heard it was connected to Marius Sonnesberg, the legendary Mad Duke, she had broken out into peals of delighted laughter-- something Gareth had never heard before.

For her part, Gerel had her question answered about the Thalass, who were apparently a highly diverse group of western relatives to the Jochi and Rolwal living along the distant rugged coast of the Dar. Turakina, who could have provided a far more complete answer days earlier had she but known, took justified offense at never having been asked.

Gareth and the kobolds, being highly capable survivors, immediately foresaw the situation that was about to erupt and promptly excused themselves. Malevoxa and Embla alternated helpful suggestions and acerbic commentary as Gerel and Turakina began to argue, more for their own entertainment than anything else.

All this, naturally, left Katarin unattended. For the last couple of weeks she had been remarkably quiescent, cunningly biding her time and lowering suspicion. For the most part, the others had been of a mind to say she could control herself, at least to a point. But now that point had been reached, and seizing her chance, she bull-rushed Tybalt into the tunnel wall.

For Tybalt, this was more than he could stand. He had metaphorically fought to move beyond the impulses planted in him by their mother, and literally fought to wipe out any that shared in her evil across the Dar. Entire bloodlines had been trampled under the Horned Khan, and only through exploiting the faintest remnants of childish innocence had Gareth managed to steer him away from this.

But that childish nature had brought with it another problem. He had always been prone to tantrums, and the stress of Katarin's obsession had steadily eaten away at his resolve. With a feral howl, Tybalt lost the last vestiges of his crumbling self-control.


Embla had not spoken to Sword much of late. Perhaps Brokk or Isolde might have thought this odd, but they were not here, and if ever she had thought of it, she would have realized that her current companions did not actually know about Sword. Given that Sword had never asked for or offered introductions, and Embla had not been entirely herself for some time, the thought just had not occurred.

They only really talked when Sword was expecting a fight anyway-- and after the slaughter in the Summervale, Sword had spent nearly a week murmuring contentedly in the back of her mind, briefly sated. That had been comforting, in a way. It had given Embla a sense of well-being to fall back to when her grief threatened to overwhelm her.

So it was a huge shock when Sword began to scream: Evil! Evil awakes! It hungers, it thirsts! Evil!

Her head snapped back as if struck, but the screaming was inside and could not be avoided. She realized that Sword was suddenly in her hand, its blade thickening and its edges becoming blunt, the better to withstand the enemy it had sensed. Embla could feel Sword pulling on a thread in her soul, opening her up to Ylsmyr's Embrace. She clamped down on that at once, a silent threat that such an intimate thing was not for Sword to initiate.

Scant seconds later, Tybalt roared behind her, and Katarin fell away from him in a daze, blood pouring from her head and dripping from Tybalt's gauntlets. His anguished, wrathful cry rose to a higher and higher pitch until it was a true shriek. His hands closed about the handles of the axes he had wrested from his fiend-spawned mother, and which he had further cursed by cutting off her head with them.

They were not aware of things in the way that Sword was. They did not speak or think, or have any sense of the world. But they did desire bloodshed, and not so calmly as Sword did. They lusted after death, whereas Sword wished for battle-- Sword had even refused to drink of Embla when the Serpent of Twilight tried to turn her own hand against her.

If there was anything to be grateful of, it was that Tybalt's axes had far less influence on his body. They could not seize control or move of their own accord, as Sword just had. All they could do was enflame his emotions, quench his fear and instinct for self-preservation, bolstering him as a terror upon the battlefield. A terror, Embla knew, that did not actually need any bolstering to be murderously dangerous to everything in sight.

She swung Sword and Sword swung her, parrying the first axe as it fell to claim Katarin's head, then knocking aside the second as it tried to come about and bite into Embla's flank. From over his shoulder, Tybalt's tail lashed out, the morningstar on its end narrowly missing Embla's face. Had she not seen Tybalt fight before and knew what to expect, that strike would have blinded her.

Another fortunate thing was that Sword could be wielded in a single hand, albeit clumsily with how heavy it now was. It gave Embla the chance to strike at Tybalt's own face, thanking Ylsmyr that he had not been wearing his helmet. She saw his jaw dislocate, heard his pained grunt, and felt the agony in her kidneys as Katarin lashed at them from behind, furiously trying to protect her love.

Evil! Evil awakes! Sword screamed again, and only now, caught between the deranged tieflings, did Embla realise that it had not been Tybalt whose feelings had triggered Sword to act.


Gerel was no newcomer to combat, having partaken in Tybalt's crusade. She had never needed to be in the front lines though, for in her capacity as Herald of the Horned Khan, she had been mainly deployed to presage battle rather than actually engage in it. Hers was a supporting role, created to give Tybalt the chance to weaken his enemies through fear and doubt.

Nevertheless, she was more experienced than Katarin. As Katarin tired of pummeling Embla with her bare hands and tried to draw her sword, Gerel kicked at the back of her knees, unbalancing her physically to match her emotional state. Katarin thrashed her way upright, but Gerel's mace was already descending to meet her. The impact shattered the sword in its scabbard, and sent Katarin back to the ground in howling agony.

Gerel hoped she had judged the swing properly so that Katarin's leg was not broken, but there was definitely going to be a colossal bruise and likely even a torn muscle. She did not lie and say to herself that she could not kill Katarin if necessary. Not all of the Unloved Children had been so young when Tybalt found them. Many had already succumbed to their mother's perverse will, and their executions had been a necessary evil.

They had had such hope for Katarin. She represented the second chance of all their siblings who had been just old enough to begin receiving the Sinful instructions, but still too young for it to take hold fully. If any gods yet listened to the Unloved Children, it was to them that prayers were offered for the salvation of these unfortunates.

Writhing at her feet, Katarin did not look savable. Even now, she gripped the hilt of her broken sword and slashed its jagged remnants towards Gerel or Embla, whichever seemed the closer at that precise moment. Her eyes were full of blind animal panic, bloodshot, staring at nothing and at everything. A litany of barely comprehensible promises spilled from her lips, most of them professing her love and her life for Tybalt.

He was not doing much better. Embla had managed to lock one of his axes behind her, pressing his extended arm to her side and enduring the vicious tears his gauntlet was making in her flesh as he struggled to get free. Her other hand had closed around the elbow joint where his armor did not cover, and there it was Tybalt enduring the agony of her fingers squeezing tight.

His tail was still free and still deadly. It coiled about the pair, seeking any opening that it might exploit to deliver a decisive blow. The angles were all wrong though, thanks to Katarin having pushed him against the tunnel wall. Embla's awareness of this threat was another relief. Her legs were the most exposed part of her, but she had positioned herself such that Tybalt's were on the other side, shielding them from him.

Her head was also vulnerable, but she could move it much more freely without sacrificing her balance. Gerel noted with some horror that Embla's lower jaw had dropped open almost to her chest. The old cuts along her cheeks were impossible to miss, of course, but whilst that sort of injury was not unheard-of among warrior circles, there had been no hint as to that serpentine maw. Tybalt's whole head could fit within, and even in his condition, Tybalt knew it.

He was caught by the understandable desire to keep his face away from that open mouth, and the need to pull his head in closer for the leverage required to escape her grips. Then came the problem of having to dodge out of the way of his own tail if he wanted to aim for her head, as there weren't many directions he could go in, and Embla would snap at them viciously if he showed the slightest sign of trying one.

Then Tybalt reacted a fraction too slowly to one such counterattack. A muffled scream of pain came from within Embla's distended jaws, and a dark river poured down her chin and chest as she bit down harder and started chewing. A bubbling hiss could be heard, her battle-quickened breath forcing its way past Tybalt's blood.

This is a nightmare, thought Gerel, frozen between helping her brother and knowing that doing so was potentially lethal.


Beyond time, Gennax

As per usual, Aidan did not know how long they spent there. At some point, Seneschal Nergal ordered Marchosias to stand up, and the imp had obeyed fearfully. Where he had been merely subdued around Ylsmyr, he was utterly defeated here. The weight of all Gennax seemed to push down upon him, seeking to crush him to dust.

This was more than ite depression. Theoretically, as a Barathean Marchosias ought to have been barely affected by the plane in any case, but evidently something had gone wrong in his discorporation. More than ending up in the wrong Hell upon his death, that is, especially in conjunction with a paladin whose soul was really supposed to go to one of the Heavens.

Neither Marchosias nor Aidan had any explanation for this. When first they arrived, Marchosias had heard the cryptic-- but doubtless true and informative-- answers Ylsmyr had given as to this unheard-of situation, but he had not understood them. Whether Aidan even remembered after his sufferings thus far was unclear. And, annoyingly typically for a follower of Heshtail, Aidan was now more concerned for Marchosias.

"You still remember who my boss is supposed to be?" Marchosias asked, only half-rhetorically. "For all that Asmodeus may claim lordship of Barathus, I am required to kneel before the Walker-in-Darkness. I am required to obey in all things."

"Over there stands one whose death I am required to pursue. The Seneschal of Inevitability, the Lichbane, Nergal scion of Tormossh. Grandson, if you will, of Grlarshh. Obviously I cannot do this by myself. Yet here I am, in his presence, stained by his aura. Damned by it."

Aidan thought he understood. "If you return to Barathus, the other devils will sense that you were not merely near to the Seneschal, but will realize that you were inside the supposedly impenetrable fortress. You will be taken apart and put together for eternity in a bid to find out how this was accomplished."

"The Walker-in-Darkness needs only to triumph here and all creation will fall," Marchosias said. "The Hells are not united under him. Once Grlarshh perishes, the armies currently reserved for sieging Gennax will be able to march forth again. Have you heard of the Unbowed Princes?"

Aidan nodded. "A collective term for a very few Demon Princes of power, correct? Those who did not bow before the Darkest God. You suggest they will be brought to heel once Gennax is overcome?"

"No suggestion," Marchosias corrected. "That is the explicit stratagem. They are mighty, yes, but few and isolated from each other. The great weakness of Chaos. Organization, cooperation, unity in the face of annihilation. All beyond their ability to understand, let alone mimic. They will fall in a matter of centuries. All three Hells, truly unified under a single deity. After that, where do you think the armies of Evil shall turn?"


Aidan thought on the question for a long time. Then he realized that that answer did not matter so much as a different one. With all that had been going on, he had failed to see what it meant that even other parts of the Hells yet resisted the Walker-in-Darkness. Surely the Heavens had set their own plans into motion as well?

No strategy existed without opposition. That was fundamental. If someone started from this position, then followed the path of reason to its logical conclusion, there was really only one place that they could end up. Fortunately (deliberately? he wondered in the back of his mind) he was in the perfect position to ask about this place.

"Great Nergal," he spoke, wisely averting his eyes this time. "I beseech you, as a mutual enemy of the Walker-in-Darkness, for enlightenment."

Nergal was again slumped over the parapets, and did not bother to turn. "What do you want, paladin? What can you offer me? What could I give in exchange? We stand upon this tower, my own retreat from damnable creation, and we are both helpless, you and I. The strings on which we dance are not our own."

"That is exactly it!" Aidan exclaimed. "We are all manipulated! Other forces than that of our foe are playing their own games. Perhaps we are just pieces on their board, but we are yet pieces with agency, are we not? My friend Marchosias calls you Seneschal of Inevitability. So I ask of you a boon: is the victory of the Darkest God inevitable?"

"Yes," Nergal answered, but in the same instant: "No."

He straightened. He turned. His eyes became black pools of eternity, mercifully unreflective, and had he dared, Aidan could have looked into them safely. Marchosias was looking, though not at Nergal. Instead, he stared in bewilderment at Aidan, uncertain if he had heard correctly. If he had, then it was a Thing Not Done.

My friend Marchosias? he thought. An imp, devil of Barathus, friend to a mortal elfkin, paladin of Heshtail? What is this? I have crafted no deception to make him think thus...

"The past follows the course of the inevitable," Nergal said at last, a tinge of surprise in his voice. "But the future has been changed. We dance upon strings still, but beneath us a knife-edge. It is not set which way we may fall. Powers compete with each other-- divine power, and something of the same kind but different."

His eyes widened in sudden understanding, as if seeing Aidan and Marchosias properly for the first time. "You have been marked by Grlarshh's Refuge. The not-god that he hopes to use as a lich would use a phylactery. The incarnate paradox... and that can only mean one thing."

Nergal turned to face the swirling fogs, and spoke a name to them.


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

Akustanza did not seem to walk so much as glide, though a part of that was mere illusion, a trick on the eyes played by the sweeping of its robes across the ground. Its discipline and poise were no illusion however. It never bent its back, or hunched its shoulders, or slouched when seated, or moved without reason.

Only its tentacles wriggled and stroked each other endlessly, an illegible discourse of whatever hidden thought or feeling it experienced. They looked fragile, as much of such flexibility typically was, but Isolde could not help but remember how easily a skull had given way under them.

Isolde started, wondering what had provoked this announcement. Then she grew suspicious, for no one else had reacted, and until now Akustanza had shown no inclination to direct its telepathy towards a single recipient. If it was 'speaking' to her and her alone now, there was an ulterior motive behind it.

She took a deep breath, and tried to think 'loudly'. What are you trying to insinuate?

Akustanza responded.

That does not answer my question. Isolde refused to be diverted. Now if I must, I will drown you, Thought-Drinker, before I am distracted.

That was enough for Isolde to be getting on with. Instead of the expected mental riposte, she brought up the memory of a grating child's song, the sort that would stick in your head for no good reason and could infuriate the most sedate listener. Partway through, she started from the top. Then she did it again, at a different part. Then she did it again. And again. And again.

Akustanza stood up, facing Isolde directly. Its tentacles tensed, stretching to their fullest, the longest mere inches from the ground. With an obviously heroic effort, it relaxed the muscles, hiding its reach again, but leaving Isolde no doubt as to how much more danger its enemy would be in even if a purely physical battle was begun. It was a highly effective warning.

Akustanza answered her at last, and she stopped 'singing'.


Brokk had yet to find an opportunity to speak with the warlock Naxartes in private, but could see that there was a mutual desire here. Clearly they had both discerned the reasons behind this meeting and were merely waiting for the right time. He had caught Naxartes looking at Isolde and himself with the same strained expression, and knew that their need was no secret to the warlock.

Now, however, they were all busy preparing themselves for what came next. The Mirror at Xura was never intended for this function, not exactly, but its ancient architects had been masters of their craft and understood the value of magical flexibility. The art had progressed in some ways since that time, but in others it had stagnated.

Even the memory of Xura was lost to most. The names of its founders and successors were no more than speculation. It was remembered only as the home of a conclave of diviners who were the first to breach the planar boundaries and travel beyond Nurion by their own power. Ironic then that the truth was so wholly hidden away-- it was a joke among Loremasters that diviners only learnt the limitations of their magic when trying to self-reflect on its history.

Zammaz had less inclination than the others to look back in such a way. As a sorcerer, he had a more limited perspective on learned magic, but an unmatchable grasp on its raw essence that no wizard or cleric, not even the most instinctual bard, could approach. There was simply nothing that they could discuss in terms of academic magical theory.

This was the other reason why Brokk was pleased to have him here. The Mirror at Xura had been built by instinct, by fumbling efforts to discover new forms of magic and codify them as spells. A sorcerer could tap into that legacy and attune more fully to that aspect. A wizard had the mental discipline to direct the enchantment as a proper ritual, uniting multiple disparate forms of magic into a focused whole.

For what they intended, a cleric of Dekk was required, which is why Akustanza resided so close to it. Its kind were not known for tolerance when religious deviance was observed-- by which it was quietly understood that ANY religious tendency was considered deviant-- and so effective exile from its home colony was a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Brokk marveled at how Naxartes fulfilled another use, beyond being the instrument of destiny that had drawn them together. As a warlock, his familiarity of pact magic, a much misunderstood and much abused branch of the art, would give his incantations greater weight when supplicating the powers that formed the fabric of the universe.

Without any one of the four, Brokk would have had next to no hope of this being successful. But here all four were, and it could scarcely be better. The odds were still heavily weighted against him, but Isolde being here afforded a strange comfort.


One week earlier, somewhere beneath Taungpyidar

Whilst the civil war in miniature was an amusing diversion from the usual tedium, Malevoxa had put on far finer performances of the subject matter, and considering that they were ostensibly on a time limit, letting this subpar attempt at tackling it continue was unacceptable. She toyed with the notion of shouting them down, but the acoustics of these tunnels had thus far proven unsatisfactory.

Instead, she picked a note that would resonate especially effectively in these spaces. Even with no magic behind it skin would crawl, and in truth she could say that was reason enough to do it. You had to make your own fun from time to time. Malevoxa opened her heart to the music of the outer spheres, and let the magic flow through her.

The trilled note cut into the very soul, and everyone cringed involuntarily. The compulsion to lie down, to be so still and so silent, to give up and just let the dark and the cold take them, filled their minds for a brief terrible instant. Then the magic found its intended targets, and Tybalt and Embla froze in place.

"I would give you a couple of minutes to think about this," Malevoxa began. "But giving things is charitable, so that option is out."

"I notice that doesn't stop you from giving out orders in all directions," Gerel muttered.

Wearing the smile she usually reserved for living sacrifices, Malevoxa mostly ignored the jibe and instead released the pair from her spell. They fell away from each other, Tybalt still trembling with rage, but now more shocked by his head having been chewed on by another person. It was not an experience even warriors ever expected to have.

"I was informed that we were suppo-" Malevoxa started, before Katarin threw her sword at her.

Embla's own weapon seemed to move by itself, blocking the attack before it became a danger. Malevoxa eyed it in suspicion, noting that it was shifting in shape. Embla having extraordinary reflexes was within the bounds of possibility. Embla having a magical sword that changed shape to suit its need was less likely, but still possible. But both of those together suggested that the latter was responsible for both-- and perhaps other things too. Malevoxa resolved to investigate this further at a later date.

"As I had begun to explain," Malevoxa resumed. "I was informed that we were supposed to be hurrying to our destination. That we were required to attend with haste. This little diversion is costing us in time, and I will tolerate no del-"

This interruption came in the form of a set of several high-pitched kobold screams, and a loud surprised yelp that could only have come from Gareth. His voice was cut off almost immediately, and a spine-chilling skittering sound replaced it.

"Oh, now what!" exclaimed Malevoxa in frustration, and turned to see for herself.

Just in time to see the kobolds fleeing in panic from a gargantuan spider scuttling into the dark, Gareth slung across its abdomen and wrapped up tightly in a web.


Turakina was astonished to see the tsigsadam react to this development with irritation rather than concern for their comrade. Instead of rushing to collect themselves, assign someone to keep an eye on Katarin, and hasten after the monster to save their friend, they merely shouted or muttered in a variety of exasperated tones.

"He will be perfectly fine," Embla said. "He was covered in webs."

That was not the reason Tybalt or Malevoxa had been less than alacritous in responding to the unexpected attack, but on reflection it made a certain sense. Everyone knew that spiders spun their webs so that they could lie in wait for their prey, and then strung it up to wait for a while.

The few that actively hunted their food and ate it on the spot did not use webs. Since Gareth had been entangled in webs, it therefore stood to reason that he was going to be added to a larder and not devoured immediately. Granted, he would probably be slightly poisoned and extremely sleepy when recovered, but there were solutions to those problems also.

When this was explained, Turakina protested: "I know all this, but he did not stumble into any webs. That spider chased him down, then wrapped him up. It is not the same thing at all!"

There was more than honor and personal interest at stake here, but that was something she did not know how to explain. Yes, the man was a travelling companion and therefore she had the duty to do right by him; and yes, though he was not conventionally attractive, she had grown fond of him on his own merits. It came down to the omens she had witnessed, chief among them the tawus-birds.

The shamaness Embla would understand if Turakina explained, that she could sense. But was it too private a matter to broach this publicly? She did not know. Perhaps the others would think she had let her emotions cloud her judgement. Perhaps they knew something else she did not, and were also keeping from her some private thing that should be made more widely known?

This hope was shattered as Tybalt spoke: "Gareth told me the gods liked to write stories about us. So the best thing to do is the opposite of what is expected. He had a special phrase for it."

Malevoxa knew the one. "Narrative causality. A simplistic meta-framing device, but Gareth was always a simple man when it came to the art of story-telling. These things happen because they are wanted to."

Gerel struggled to translate the concept, being unfamiliar with it herself, and from Turakina's expression it was clear that she had no idea what they were talking about. All she knew was that a friend of theirs had just been stolen away and they were not reacting at all the way any sane person would.

"This is not the first time Gareth has been so abducted," Malevoxa explained in the end. "Though it was no giant spider previously..."



Milon Dukalle in a rage was a greater terror than an army of Dark Folk at the city gates. He had his sword out, blood still staining the blade, and servants and guardsmen alike fled before him. It had been as he feared when that barely sufferable lech had set his plan-- his irresponsible and unapproved plan-- into motion. Now he could showcase one of the consequences of this course of action.

At least one vampire involved in the operation had seen through the ruse. Or at the very least, suspected that there was a ruse. It had dispatched a different monster to investigate. Kale had been lucky to avoid the attentions of grimmen in the past, but stories of them had reached the population from neighboring Kelerak and Daven.

Nobody was entirely sure what they were. Their fiendish nature was a certainty, but they were not native to any Hell, and one of the few things that the clergy of every church agreed upon was that they could not be banished as might an extraplanar invader. Their capacity for deceit and disguises was legendary, suggesting a link to the horrid doppelgangers first catalogued by the famed Van Richten clan.

Now that was a strange bloodline. Every so often, when some poor place was being terrorised by one monster or another, a Van Richten would suddenly appear. Never the same one twice in a row, never the wrong one for the monster, always arriving and leaving alone when the job was done. Their accents varied as much as their appearance, and no census had a record of them. In a way, they were just as great a mystery as the grimmen!

Once, Milon had encountered a Van Richten. That one suggested that just as tieflings were the product of cambion or true fiendish influence upon a human bloodline, the grimmen were the equivalent where doppelgangers were concerned. He did not care for these details, for they gave him no added ability to butcher the foul creatures. All that mattered to Milon was ensuring their corruption did not take hold in the first place.

He felt violated. The grimmen had sought to replace him, hiding its telltale features by means of a minor illusion. What had initially appeared to be a random maidservant had waited until his back was to it, then had clubbed him over the head with a chamber pot. A clean one, mercifully, but as Milon struggled to regain his composure, the beast had thrown itself onto his back.

One hand had closed vice-like around his throat, choking him and cutting off any sound, whilst the other pressed a dagger into his back. Had Milon been a less disciplined man, the blade would have cut straight into his lungs. As it was, the tip nearly pierced his hauberk, wisely concealed under his courtier's clothing, and his was the first blood spilled. That was an insult to his pride, and he had responded accordingly.


In high-profile assassinations, this kind was preferred to the more military cutting of the throat, for that invariably resulted in gouts of blood spraying the murder scene. Milon's death needed to be completely unnoticed, and the cleanup of an immediately lethal attack risked that condition. Speed was not necessarily better than precision, and the grimmen had known this.

However, as was typical for grimmen, it also had the disadvantage of lacking in real strength or endurance. Milon, belonging to that school of thought that his body was a temple, and whose preferred patron god was Kantor the Crusader, was built for close combat.

The grimmen shrieked as it was prised loose, Milon breaking first its grip and then its limbs with brute force. Only then, when he was sure it was at his limited mercy, did he draw his sword and spill its guts onto the palace floor. That was not the end of it. He knew what came next. He had just enough time to finish tying the corpse's hands with its own entrails before its eyes opened.

They were almost empty. Much of the awareness that had characterized it in life was gone, to be replaced by a kind of frantic instinct. But Milon knew that grimmen were not wholly mindless in this unliving state. With the right incentive and a certain amount of patience, they could still answer questions. Further, with their wits lost in a post-death fugue, there was a chance of deceiving him in the process.

So he smeared some of his own blood onto the grimmen's nose, filling its scent with his life. The living corpse spasmed, its jaws clashing together hungrily, for a grimmen could restore itself if only it could feed enough. Desperate, confused, pained, vulnerable-- and at Milon's mercy. He asked only the most pertinent questions, and received exactly the answers he sought.

When he was done with his interrogation, he took his sword to the corpse with perhaps more hate than was strictly warranted. Then he stormed through the palace, seeking out those who had been named as targets. The grimmen had not acted alone, and Milon had no intention of allowing even a single of its cohorts to escape.

His blade drank deep that day, and by the time evening turned to dusk he had put down a total of six grimmen. In each case, he had paused to interrogate them before moving on, ensuring that his information was not obsolete. The last of his enemies awaited within the royal chambers. It was there that he now marched.


As he had been told to expect, the royal chambers were apparently empty. Both knowing better from the grimmen and his own training, Milon ignored this and went straight to the hidden door. It led to a special reinforced chamber had been intended as a bolthole in times of need, giving the royal family an opportunity to escape the palace, but the Lord of Pride had been offended by the implication and sealed up the exit tunnel.

Ironically enough, the Lords of the West had sent him fleeing through that same door, giving him a retributive taste of the same helpless terror he had inflicted upon the Kalais for all those years. It was said that Bartarius had watched him scrabble fruitlessly at the stone, succumbing to a far more profound madness in this humiliation, before dragging him back out to be properly slain. Whether this was true or not did not matter-- the people believed it, and felt avenged.

Milon slipped into the escape passage, silent as a prowling cat, intent on catching the last of the grimmen by surprise. Its assignment had been to verify the hints of 'Gaidan's' vampirism which only another of the bloodsuckers would collectively pick up on. What it had not realized was that trying to abduct a vampire from its own lair would inevitably be seen as an attack. Only by dying could the grimmen confirm the suspicions, for a successful abduction and impersonation would indicate the target was still mortal.

Obviously, Gareth was mortal. Therefore, he had been dragged from his bed and through the hidden door to be questioned. Until the grimmen responsible for this had enough information to mimic Gareth properly, the man would be kept alive. This had given Milon time enough to clear out the rest of the infestation.

The hidden passage was built into the walls of the palace, meaning there were several awkward turns to take in complete darkness before Milon reached the end. Anyone else would have made a considerable amount of noise, but Milon had walked this route before, memorizing it so that he could be ready for any eventuality.

He came up to the last corner, around which a faint light crept. Grimmen could see perfectly in the dark, but if their victims could not, their cooperation could be improved when they could be shown the implements of their torture. Evidently, to judge from what he could hear, Gareth had started explaining most intricate minutiae of how to impersonate him almost at once, and had very successfully kept the grimmen professionally attentive all this while.

Milon had to admit, for all that he did not like to, this cowardice had proved itself useful on this one very specific occasion. Still, that was no reason to encourage it. He took one last slow breath to steady himself, then charged around the corner and into the chamber. The grimmen did not know what hit it, and died with a look of surprise on its face. When it tried to rise again a couple of minutes later, Milon put it down for good no less efficiently.

Gareth, bound so completely to a chair that only his head emerged from among the ropes and chains, showed the predictable discourtesy of mocking the grimmen's corpse both times. Milon was sorely tempted to leave him imprisoned for a while longer, just out of hope that hunger and thirst would hobble his tongue. Then he heard Sybille stumbling down the passage, and knew he would not get to validate this hope tonight.


One week earlier, somewhere below Taungpyidar

Turakina listened to the story as best as Gerel could translate it, and by the end of it she was able to conclude the same thing that everyone else who had spent enough time around adventurers inevitably would.

"You people are insane," she said clearly. "There is something actually wrong with you. And with the world for needing you. As grateful as I am that you exist as people, I am horrified that your lifestyle does."

"We get that sentiment a lot," Embla acknowledged. "Personally, I take it as a sign that Ylsmyr is using whatever tools are available to patch up the holes in the world. No, he doesn't always get it right, but things will improve if we all work at it."

That mollified Turakina a little. It made sense when you thought about it. After all, her ancestors had made mistakes when yet they lived. It was hardly fair to expect them to suddenly be flawless and all-knowing after they had died. Technically, the Sahra Ganjyk would be counted among the ranks of the ancestors, if only for the Unloved Children.

And there is no way I or anybody else will ever look to her for advice! she thought.

So with that in mind, Embla's explanation was even more reasonable. Her Ilzamir was supposed to have a mutualistic, reciprocal relationship with his people. There was nothing he could not do, but he could only do everything when he had help. This appealed to Turakina's tribal sense of community, as well as her sense of justice. Family were supposed to help each other in their own ways, and not exploit a person's good nature to evade responsibility.

Now it was their responsibility to rescue Gareth from whatever fate threatened him, and then somehow get back on track before it was too late. She still did not know where they were going, or how they were supposed to reach it with the vague directions that they had been given, or what they would do when they got there.

Nobody else did either, from what she had gathered. Embla was the only one of them who had spent much time with the fellow shaman who had issued the directions, but the details behind it all had been kept a secret. Such was the way of shamans, it seemed, but then again, expecting anything else of those who saw beyond the norm was an exercise in foolishness.

Had Turakina known of certain other details behind the current situation, she would also have ascribed foolishness there. Ignorant of them, however, she was able only to ensure that Katarin was securely bound and disarmed, so that she could cause no more problems as they set off to find their captured companion.


A serrated claw slid towards his face, and Gareth stopped wriggling. The movement was far too deliberate to be mistaken for anything, so his cooperation would ensure no accidental injury was in the cards. When the claw pulled back, having barely brushed past his lips, the thick webbing that had held his jaws together parted. Blessed air, thick and reeking and cloying, finally filled his lungs, giving his poor nostrils a rest.

"Now why is it always giant spiders?" the irrepressible man immediately started talking. "Why can we never have anything other than giant spiders in this scenario? Is there a metaphysical contract to which the universe must adhere? Giant spiders. No imagination. No originality. Just once, I'd like to see something other than giant spiders make an appearance."

The rant was unjustified. These were, in fact, the only giant spiders Gareth had ever seen, much less had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of. As a man of the world, however, he had heard more than his fair share of stories. In far too many of these, giant spiders dominated as the apparent spine-chilling horror of choice.

"Scorpions," he continued. "Scorpions are a perfectly legitimate threat that could be used to fulfil many of the same functions. But you never seen them a tenth so frequently. Now why is that? I consider that suspiciously prejudicial. Is the assumption that a scorpion cannot accomplish the same thing, or is a simple case of ignorance in favor of more established figures? Now perhaps I am just reading too much into this, but it is a topic that deserves discussion!"

He had asked a tavern bard about it once and received the vapid stare of a lotus-chewer by way of an answer. In one sense, that had helped to solidify his impressions of story-tellers. Another time he had spoken to Malevoxa about it, who had been a little more forthcoming. Spiders were well-known for being highly capable, highly creepy hunters. They were found everywhere, just about, and people responded to this kind of ubiquitous presence pretty much the same all over the world.

"On a side note, I want to caution you on your choice of diet," he said, trying to ignore the many, many other giant spiders his dark-adjusting eyes were beginning to pick out around the cavern. "Whilst I may look appetizing, the sad reality is that I am very unsuitable for a decent meal. This lean, chiseled body of mine is pure muscle and sinew. I regret to inform you that there is barely an ounce of fat on me, and if you were hoping for something less gamey than kobold, I am not a good option."

Spiders were known as web-makers, true, but they did not have a reputation for crafting torches, however. The fact that he was not in complete darkness and could hear the crackling of flames nearby suggested that some actual intelligence was close. Giant spiders were bad enough, but giant spiders that were acting as the pets or servants of something else was utterly horrifying.

"Needless to say, I love what you have done with the place," Gareth carried on relentlessly. "The aesthetic combines the pseudo-gauche spatial blending of ceiling and wall with the more severe asceticism of traditional speleodomicilia. A critical response to the neoclassic movement, I take it? Inspirational. Grandiose. You are an architectural visionary!"

He felt something take hold of his shoulders and begin to turn him, spinning him around towards the light source. Gareth ran through every option in his extensive repertoire of self-preserving gambits. Whatever he faced would be subject to the fullest awesome majesty of his intellect and charm, and thus be compelled to release him.

And on seeing what had taken him captive, all he could do was smile.