That…was a lot. Blood and Dragons, Part Two did not prove to be the longest Blood Magic episode I’ve ever written – I think that record is still held by Pifecha, Part Two – but it might be among the most intense. I actually finished the story feeling like I do after I read a particularly powerful, impactful conclusion in a real book, which I’m taking as a sign that I did something right with this story. Let’s hope so, because this story was full of hard decisions, only some of which I can talk about in this post. I might decide to write a second post, separate from this release post, going into some of those discussions, but for now, let’s focus on what I can talk about without spoiling the episode.
First, that opening scene. I suspect readers were hoping/expecting me to pick up with Doil and his team right where I left off in Part One, which is totally different from the direction I chose to go. This episode almost has its own little prologue, which some might say that I should cut. It contributes little to the direct plot of this episode, and doesn’t even add a lot to the setup. Nonetheless, I think it’s a really important scene, serving a few key purposes. 1) It sets up why the Blood Priests won’t be helping Kiluron and the others fight against the Ipemav, which as you’ll find out later in this episode, is kind of a major problem. 2) It gives us an important and unique perspective on what is unfolding and what has been happening over the past few episodes, really since the Pifechan invasion. Yorin’s viewpoint provides a certain…detachment from those events, and allows me to show them to the reader in a different way. 3) Maybe most importantly, this is a reminder, a reminder that will not become majorly relevant until later episodes. This is probably the darkest scene I’ve written for the Blood Magic series, and I think it was time. Blood Magic as a system was designed around having a fundamental cost, a visceral cost, a revolting cost, and one that we really haven’t seen a lot of in the series. There’s a reason that the Blood Decrees were instituted, there’s a reason that the Ipemav are slaughtering villages, and while I’ve alluded to it, hinted at it, and even mentioned it directly, it never happened “on screen,” as it were. Though I hesitated about how dark this scene is, I think that I would seriously weaken not just this story, but the series as a whole if I left it out.
It also really sets up Doil’s dilemma and puts it in a more serious light. I think, without that opening scene, readers might be wondering why Doil is hesitating when the fate of the world is at stake. Knowing that actual human sacrifice is the basis of Blood Magic, and not just the mostly voluntary blood-letting that I’ve primarily featured in the series in “on screen” events, makes his reluctance more legitimate and more meaningful. Beyond that, Doil is a little like me when it comes to compulsive rule following. Hopefully that part of the story does not seem forced to you – I think it is very true to his character, and it provides just one more hurdle for the characters to overcome in a story already replete with obstacles.
In order to keep the story from getting too bogged down in scholarly discussions between Doil and Jade, I decided to throw in an Arval viewpoint. It also gave a perspective on the discussion to which I think a lot of modern readers will more easily relate. Arval is deeply skeptical of magic, and insists that it can be explained. I had to do some interesting research for this scene, to give a realistic idea of what Arval really might know about blood, based on what humans have thought about blood in our own history.
After that, we get to the scene that is the focus of the whole episode, really, of the whole two parts. It’s a scene that has been in my head for a long time now, and I’m excited that I was finally able to get it written. Hopefully it works for you, but unfortunately we can’t talk much about it here, not without spoilers. So look for that follow-up post, and be sure to only read it after you’ve read this episode, and next month’s. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you about it. What I will mention here is that I was very worried about it becoming too long of a scene, and devolving too much into spectacle. Hopefully I was able to get the balance right.
That scene almost grew into an uncontrollable monster of a separate story, but again, we’ll talk more about that in a separate post, and possible in a separate story. Most of my struggles with writing this episode were not around what to write, but rather what not to write. There were so many things that needed to happen, and certain information and perspectives I wanted my readers to have, that I had to make a lot of difficult decisions about what to have happen in the story, versus just implying from some other scene. I hope that didn’t make the episode too jumpy, but I think it works.
Like I said at the beginning, this episode was intense to write, but I am really pleased with how it turned out. It has a lot in it: world-building, history, character development, plot, tension, pacing, action, magic…it’s a culmination, in a lot of ways. If I’d plotted the series differently, this could easily have been the climax, the final episode, the end of it all. I didn’t, though, so I hope that means that you’ll all now be on tenterhooks about what the real ending might be like. For now, I am truly excited to present the conclusion of Blood and Dragons.
From the shattered balcony of a broken tower on the Isle of Blood, High Priest Yorin watched a battle between gods and men. Though the battle was near the center of Merolate City, the ring that was drawing a trickle of blood from the base of his finger allowed him to watch it as clearly as if the balcony he stood upon was on one of the buildings overlooking the fight directly. A blast of incandescent light obliterated just such a building, and Yorin pressed his lips into a thin smile; his view was even a better one.
A dozen guardsmen were vaporized by the strike. That meddling Gruordvwrold, Garnet, might have enchanted the guardsmen’s armor and weapons, but it seemed to be doing them little good as they strove against just two Gods. Turning his back on the battle, Yorin released his viewing ring and retreated into the tower’s remnants. These had been his quarters, before they had been pulverized by Pifechan thundercasters. He lingered there, looking through the gaps in the tortured stone, before he hobbled down from the tower.
He had no illusions about the Gods’ rule being better for the Balancers than the Union’s. As soon as the rest of Lufilna was subdued, he assumed that the Gods would turn their attention to the Isle, or rather what was left of it. For now, he was content to let Merolate weaken itself in a hopeless fight against an enemy they could not hope to match or understand, them and their Gruordvwrold allies. Whatever the Gruordvwrold wanted, Yorin did not trust them. There was something strange about their magic, something wrong about it. It didn’t seem to fit with the Balance.
Besides, he had his own concerns. As he stepped into the improvised gathering of buildings created from the Isle’s destruction, he noted how few Balancers remained. No, this was not the time to involve his Priests in a war against Gods. They were too few, too weak, to take such a risk. He hated to admit such a thing, but it was the truth. Their numbers were barely two dozen after the Pifechan disaster, their home was in ruins, and they were living off the benevolence of a Merolate Prime. It was an unsustainable position.
It was beginning to grow dark, so Yorin shuffled his tedious way around to the Isle’s southern shore. There were days that he feared he would at last become too old to even rise from his bed, much less perform his duties as High Priest, but that had not happened this day, and it would not happen tomorrow; there was far too much for which he was responsible for him to die now, or even to pass on his mantel, tasks that only he could accomplish. He watched as the canoe struggled through the mild harbor waves towards the shore.
Merolate’s sea defenses were tightening with the strange formation rising at the harbor’s mouth, and for this mission Yorin had insisted on secrecy. It seemed some small consolation to them that he should stand on the shore and greet the sodden trio of Balancers who stumbled out of the canoe once they had beached it: two Priests, and one of the faithful. The young man would never be allowed to return to Merolate, simply because he had stepped foot upon the Isle. Never mind that he would not have the opportunity because of the service for which he had volunteered; the Blood Decrees were reprehensible.
“Welcome home,” Yorin greeted the three Balancers. His priests dipped their heads to him, while the young man they had brought with them fell to his knees and bowed almost to the ground at Yorin’s feet.
“High Priest, I am greatly honored to serve,” the man said. “I know the sacrifice that I will give, and I give it willingly. I am ready.” Though his hand might have trembled a moment, his conviction held, and he tore his tunic to bare his breast.
After watching the display for a moment, Yorin leaned down and raised the man to his feet with a hand on his elbow. “It is we who are honored by your faith and by your willingness to sacrifice,” he replied. “However, the time for that is not now. We do not have much, these days, but let us offer you a repast before we speak further of such matters.”
Dried blummox meat, salted fish, pickled fruits and vegetables, and sourdough fry breads served for a meal, and while the selection was growing tiresome after so long, Yorin could not deny that the Prime saw them well supplied. That was part of the problem. It was unbalanced, and Yorin feared when the balance would come due.
He expressed none of these reservations to Delobin, however. A sacrifice’s final meal was not something to spoil with worries about the future. Though it had been many years since there had been a sacrifice at the Isle, the other Priests treated Delobin as the honored guest he was, and if there was an awkwardness from the role that the stranger would serve, it was a subtle thing, and easily ignored. Yorin contented himself mostly with observing the proceedings, only interjecting now and then when a comment from the High Priest seemed needful.
When the late supper was finished, and it was nearing midnight, Priests Heldri and Bovurk escorted Delobin away to prepare him for the sacrifice. Yorin had his own preparations to make. He changed into his most formal set of crimson robes, and he knapped a few fresh flakes from the obsidian knife he would use. Though it was long since he had conducted a human sacrifice, the rituals were still familiar to him; he was pleased that his memory, if a bit faded on certain matters, had not yet begun to fail him with his old age.
Midnight or noon were the times at which a sacrifice such as this was best performed; the natural unbalance of the time of day would enhance the power that could be harvested from the ritual, making the most of what Delobin would give them. Yorin’s fear was that it would not be enough. Though the Gods seemed occupied for now with crushing Merolate, and the Gruordvwrold were slowing them down, Yorin feared they would strike the Isle, and he intended to be ready for such an attack. Keeping ready, though, would require the sacrifices of more than a single member of the faithful.
When he emerged from his preparations, he found Delobin stripped naked and lying, spread-eagled, upon a bema of black, volcanic stone. Shaped like a distorted pentagon, the bema’s porous rock would absorb the blood, helping it to last longer in fueling the magic that Yorin required. Only the stars and the alien rift in the sky provided any illumination; Yorin did not want to risk any moralizing Unioners learning of what would transpire at midnight.
At hands and ankles, bonds held Delobin to the bema, but they were loose, soft bonds, intended more to stabilize than to restrain. It had been different during the days of the Blood Empire, but since its fall no Balancer worthy of the name had spilt the blood of an unwilling sacrifice. One day, perhaps, the rest of Lufilna would be ready to put the transgressions of the Blood Empire behind them, but Yorin no longer believed that he would live to see such a change.
Yorin approached the bema and stood at Delobin’s feet. “Are you ready, Delobin?” he asked.
The man nodded, although a tension had taken his muscles which had not been evident before; the immediacy and reality of what was to transpire could strike trepidation in even the most faithful. His throat bobbed as he forced a swallow down a dry throat. “I’m ready, High Priest. This is the greatest honor of my life.”
“Your sacrifice will not be in vain,” Yorin promised. He took the knife he had prepared and slit the soles of Delobin’s feet, eliciting a sharp hiss and a dribble of blood that wet the thirsty stone. Though a cool breeze was blowing in from the sea, Yorin wiped sweat from his brow.
Once the first cuts were made, Yorin proceeded to the shoulders, cutting deeply into the flesh there; Delobin arched his back and cried out, though he choked off the cry, panting. He would have been offered a gag, or a dowel upon which to bite, but he must have declined. Few sacrifices truly understood just what they gave to the Priests by their deaths. Trying to ignore the whimpers and other complaints, Yorin continued with the sacrifice, and blood slowly saturated the bema as Delobin grew paler and paler.
Only when no more blood flowed forth was the sacrifice complete, but the ritual was not finished; the imbalance created by the sacrifice still needed to be employed, or the whole process would have been for naught. With the other Priests aiding him, Yorin cut his own palmto join his blood to Delobin’s, and began to invoke protective magic.
It was nearly dawn by the time that he finished, and he sagged with exhaustion both emotional and physical. Looking at the shell lying on the bema, he bowed his head. “Thank you, Delobin. You have done a great service for your faith.”
The most powerful wards he knew, drawn from teachings that dated from the fall of the Blood Empire, now protected the Isle. He had no way of knowing if it would be enough to deter or protect them from an attack by the Gods, but it was better than nothing, and, if nothing else, it would protect them from any interference from the Union. Wrapping a clean bandage around the cut on his palm, Yorin allowed one of his priests to help him to his bed, content that he was doing all he could to protect the faith.
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