For thirty-seven years, Jorvin had been working the same farm.  His father had worked the same land for forty-nine years before that, and his grandfather had worked the same soil through the wars of Merolate’s forced unification of Corbulate.  He knew to rotate the crops each year to avoid depleting the soil.  He knew when the last frost of the year would be, and he knew how to work the still-stiff soil so that the hardier crops could be planted early.  He knew exactly when the spring shoots would begin to push their way out of the soil, and he knew precisely what they ought to look like.  This was his life, after all, and there was order to it, structure, as in every good Corb’s life.  His farm was not just his livelihood, nor just his job; it was his solemn duty.

               When Jorvin walked out of his farmhouse at the coming of dawn to inspect the crops, he also knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.  He had planted each seed with the same military precision upon which all Corbs prided themselves, and he had tended them with the same dedication.  There was no reason for the crops to be emerging wrong, but that they were was not in doubt even from a distance.  Jorvin fell to his knees in the soil between rows of sickened sprouts and fought down a cry.  It would not do to cry, no matter how terrible the situation.  There would be another way, a chance to try again, to plant another crop, to change out the soil, to fix what was broken.  It was the only way he knew.

               It wasn’t even that they were sick; Jorvin knew the signs of sickness, and these were not those.  This was something different, something new.  Each of the sprouts was grey at the leaves, with black, oily spots coating the stems; when Jorvin touched them, fondling them gently in thick, calloused fingers, the ashen leaves crumbled away, and his fingers came away slick with an iridescent film.  Putting his fingers to his face, it smelled like those fields where the wildflowers are so thick and overwhelming that it smells rotten-sweet.  Somehow, he was not surprised that there was no sign of insect life that might have been eating the sprouts; these things were too rotten, too broken, too wrong even for the dirty, crawling things of the world.

               All that Jorvin could do for a moment was kneel there, his fingers dirty with the remains of his crops.  Last year had been a hard year, and he had only been able to put away one planting’s worth of seeds.  There was no way for him to replant, and he could see from where he knelt that his entire crop was exhibiting the same symptoms.  Jorvin’s fingers dug into the soil, and he bowed his head.  Then, he took a deep, unsteady breath, he forced himself to his feet, and he hurried to his farmhouse.

               His wife, Obeline, took one look at his face and put down the jar of flour she had been wielding.  “What happened?” she asked.

               Jorvin’s fingers grasped on empty air as he searched for words.  “The crops,” he managed, in barely more than a whisper.  “They’re…they’re gone.  All gone.  They’ve sprouted, but they’re, they’re wrong, somehow, so wrong.  Like a sickness, but worse.  And it’s not just a few; it’s all of them.”

               By that time, the rest of the family had crowded into the little farmhouse kitchen: his four sons and two daughters.  Curiously, the cats that seemed to follow wherever his youngest son went were nowhere to be seen.  His oldest son, Jorxin, had seen nearly twenty summers, and he looked at his father in confusion.  “How can that be?  We done everything right, just like grandpa showed.”

               It took an effort of will for Jorvin to nod in agreement.  “And your great-grandpa, too,” he remarked.  “I don’t know how this can be…it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

               Obeline clapped her hands, the noise sharp and surprising in the silence that had descended.  “Well, there’s no point standing around here bemoaning and wondering about it,” she snapped.  “Jorvin, why don’t you get yourself over to the neighbor’s place and see if they’re in the same boat as us.  If nothing else, misery loves company.  And tell ‘em that I’ll make them dinner tonight if they’ll help us figure this thing out.”

               “At least one of us can keep her head together,” Jorvin observed, giving his wife a hug.  He already felt more confident that something could be done and that all was not yet lost.  “I’ll go right away.”

               It was quiet when he reached his neighbor’s farm.  No one answered when Jorvin knocked on the door, so he walked around to the fields in the back.  His neighbors had a significantly smaller farm with only two fields; both were exhibiting the same symptoms of sickness as he had seen on his own crops.  Fighting down his dismay, Jorvin looked around, searching for the people; there seemed to be no sign of the neighbors themselves.  A few of the sick crops appeared to have been harvested.  Growing concerned, Jorvin jogged to the barn, where the main doors had been left slightly ajar.  They creaked jarringly in the still, early morning air as Jorvin pulled them apart, and he slipped inside.

               The first thing he noticed as the smell, the same smell from his own fields, but much stronger, more intense and concentrated.  Choking on the cloying stench, Jorvin forced himself to walk deeper into the barn, pulling his shirt up over his mouth and nose as he did.  It helped, a little.  The light from outside fell on a form lying on the ground not far from a table, where the remains of several sprouts lay in pieces.  Jarvin came up to the form, and leapt backwards, breathing heavily through his mouth, and fighting down his gorge, along with the urge to scream.  His neighbor was lying on the ground, his fingers and lips ashen like the plants, his eyes filled with that oily, slick film.  He was very, very dead, but there was no evidence of insects or worms attacking the corpse.

               In farm life, Jorvin was no stranger to wounds, injuries, sicknesses, even corpses, but there was something particularly horrifying, even unnatural, and disturbing, about the body that had once been his neighbor lying on the ground.  Jorvin more than half expected it to rise up again at the bidding of some unseen, malignant force, though he knew that was irrational.  Squeezing his eyes shut, Jorvin could not dispel the vision that he himself might face a similar fate.  Racing from the barn, Jorvin found the well, and scrubbed his hands until they were raw and bleeding.  Even so, it felt like the oily film was still present on his weeping fingertips.

               When Jorvin walked back to his own farm, he spent the entire distance trying to calm himself.  Probably he should have checked for his neighbor’s wife, but he couldn’t bring himself to enter that farmhouse.  There had been no response to his knock initially, and he feared what that meant; the idea of coming across another body like that was too much for him to handle.  He would visit the other farms in the area, see if anyone’s crops had escaped the sickness, warn them about the fate that might await them, but in his heart he already knew what he would find there.  Before the end of the day, he had his whole family on the road, going towards the capital.  There was nothing more Jorvin could think to do, so it was time to elevate the problem.  Governor Parl would be able to help.

               Soon, he found that he and his family were not the only ones hoping that Governor Parl would be able to help, or perhaps simply fleeing from the horrors they had seen at their farms and houses.  A stream of refugees – it was a hard thing for Jorvin to admit that was what they were, as they trundled along on their wagon with a few meager possessions and supplies to share amongst them – became a river, which became a flood, which before long was a veritable deluge.  Everyone he met had the same kinds of stories: their crops had been ruined, their metal had rusted through overnight, they animals had proven full of maggots.  Soon, Jorvin had to leave the wagon behind, and he and his family continued on foot, when the blummoxes died.  On and on the horrors went, but all the refugees had the same hope; that Governor Parl would be able to do something, somehow, to put their lives back in order, or at least that he would be able to hold the world together.  Sometimes, it seemed a very flimsy hope to which to cling.

               Slowly, Prime Wezzix lowered the letter.  He was pale as he handed it to Borivat, who read it, and numbly handed it to Kiluron, who had to be prompted to hand it on to Doil.  When all of them had finished, they stared at each other, none of them quite sure what to say, or perhaps not wanting to be the first to break the silence.  It was only the most recent of many letter to come in, but it was not the first; they had now received similar letters from every governor of every province in the Merolate Union.

               “Well,” Kiluron started.  “I think we have a problem.

               Doil coughed.  “A problem?  This is a complete disaster.”

               “Not completely,” Kiluron retorted.  “We’re still here.”

               “Still here?” Doil repeated.  “That’s your criterium?  Every province in Merolate is experiencing crop failures on a massive scale, plagues, deteriorating infrastructure.  Every city is being flooded with rural refugees that they are completely ill-positioned to handle.  Ebereen sent us a missive begging for aid, because their weather is still locked in winter.  But we don’t have any aid to offer.  And this isn’t a complete disaster?”

               Impatiently, Prime Wezzix held up his hands for silence.  “This bickering is not getting us anywhere.  This is a crisis, but I have no intention of allowing the Union to collapse under the pressure.  I want teams assigned to figure out where all of these problems are coming from.  Borivat, I want letters drafted to each of the governors, promising that the central government will support them as best we can.  In the meantime, I need options, people.  How do we keep this country together?”

               Going back to the stack of letters, Borivat considered.  “Our food reserves are just as low as everyone else’s after the winter, but we have some long-term seed banks we can distribute for food supplements, and for re-planting, once we get to that point.  That assumes, of course, that we can identify and solve whatever caused all of the crop failures initially.  I’d also recommend that we launch as many ships to Nycheril as we can.  There might be foodstuffs or other resources we can leverage there, that have not been affected by whatever is causing problems here.”

               Prime Wezzix was nodding.  “Good.  What about the plagues?”

               “It might simply be too late already, and we don’t even know the source of the plagues,” Borivat admitted, “but I recommend that the governors consider quarantining affected cities.  Use city guards, militias, whatever is available to organize collection and incineration of the dead.  I don’t know if all of these disasters are related, but I doubt there have been so many clumped together like this since the rising days of the old Blood Empire.  And I have a hard time convincing myself that there is nothing more than coincidence going on, with so many things happening at once.  And on the tails of that weird weather we had earlier this year…”

               “This is good,” Prime Wezzix mused, ignoring Borivat’s musing in favor of his policy recommendations.  “Implement what you can.  I will talk with Guardcaption Vere about deplying additional troops to the provinces, and deploying the Navy to Nycheril.  Let’s also send a letter to the governors asking that they contribute any resources they can spare to the Union’s overall response to these simultaneous crises.  Not that I expect them to cooperate on that, but we can’t allow the Union to fracture back into provinces under the strain, and we could be in for a very long year if we can’t at least get crops growing.”

               “Understood,” Borivat agreed.

               There was a pause as everyone took stock of the frenetic discussion.  “See?” Kiluron said to Doil.  “We can deal with this.”

               Doil frowned, but nodded reluctantly.  “Sure.  Unprecedented series of natural disasters probably leave thousands dead and put us decades behind where we should be, that is, where we would otherwise be.  But we’ll be okay in no time.”

               “If there’s nothing else,” Prime Wezzix announced, interrupting, “then I think we all have plenty of work to do.”

               He had just started to rise from his chair when Guardcaptain Vere strode in.  Normally, he looked impeccable, but now his uniform was sweat-stained, his hair was disheveled, and his steady eyes were flashing.  “I just received a report from our outposts on the border with the Unclaimed Territories,” he stated, without preamble or formalities.  “Something, a force that isn’t even human, is massing on our border.”  He paused, as Doil and Borivat froze in the act of gathering papers, Kiluron’s mouth opened and closed without making a sound, and Wezzix lowered himself heavily back into his chair.  “Whatever or whoever is out there, one thing is clear.  We’re about to be invaded.”

               For the second time that morning, there was a protracted, numb silence.  Outside, a bird chirped in the balmy, spring air, oblivious to the attitude of the indoor conference.  Quietly, Prime Wezzix spoke.  “How many troops do we have on the border right now?”

               “I’ve dispatched all border outpost personnel to concentrate where the forces seem to be massing,” Vere answered.  “If they all get there in time, that’s five hundred troops.”  He paused.  “I’d like permission to go out to command the defense.”

               Glancing at Borivat, Wezzix shook his head.  “Permission denied.  We need you here, coordinating the core defense and our emergency responses.”

               Vere’s face clouded.  “Sir, those men have no unified command structure, no strategy.  If I’m not there, that’s as good as condemning those men to their deaths.”

               “I know that,” Prime Wezzix snapped.  “And my decision stands.  We need you here.  And no matter how brilliant a defense we mount, we are not in a position right now to hold that frontier.  No one fights at this time of year – there simply aren’t the resources, even without the other crises we’re now facing.  If we can, we will retake it once we’ve stabilized our base.  But it won’t matter if we lose the frontier if we can’t hold onto the rest of the Union.

               There was nothing accepting about Vere’s expression, but he nodded stiffly.  “Yes Sir.”

               Wezzix nodded.  “Good.  We have to close up our domestic front before we can hope to mount anything more than a delaying action.  But where is all of this coming from?”

               Hesitantly, Borivat held up his hand.  “I think that we must at least consider reaching out to the Isle of Blood, even if only about the non-human army coming from the Unclaimed Territories.”

               “No,” Prime Wezzix replied.  “They will blame this on imbalances and use it to increase their own influence and reach in our nation and amongst our people.”

               “If they might have the answers?” Doil proposed.  “They at the very least have more detailed records of the times before the founding of the Blood Empire than we do, which was the last time I can recall in history that something like this may have occurred.”

               Wezzix shook his head.  “No.  That’s final.  Do we have any allies to whom we could turn?  Ebereen can’t help us any more than we can help them.”

               There was silence.  “Huh,” Kiluron remarked.  “I guess the disadvantage of Unification is that we don’t really have any allies to which we can turn.  It all just comes down to us.”

               “We could reach out to Old Sankt,” Borivat mused, “They’re more significant than they have been in recent times, although still only a shadow of strength.  Still, they might be able to offer us something, assuming they’re not experiencing the same disasters we are.”

               “At least it would be worth asking,” Doil agreed.  “Revealing weakness to them would not present a significant risk to our own geopolitical position.”  He glanced towards Borivat for approval, and received it; geopolitics was not his preferred subject.

               Prime Wezzix nodded in agreement, and then dismissed them.  This time, no one rushed in with further news about how badly things were going.  Personally, Doil could not imagine them going any more poorly, so that hardly seemed surprisingly.  His eyes were downcast as he left the chamber, but Kiluron caught his arm as he began to walk down the hall.

               “Am I crazy, or should Vere’s announcement about nonhuman armies massing on our border have gotten a little more attention?” Kiluron asked, keeping his voice hushed and looking around furtively.  “Wezzix just dismissed the matter like there we can’t be bothered to worry about it.  But an actual invasion?  That’s a big deal.  There hasn’t been much more than a border raid since, since I’m not sure when.  Awhile.”

               Doil nodded, and responded in kind.  “Since Merolate’s Unification.  But what would you have the Prime do?  There are only so many troops, and we don’t have the food stores to sustain a war right now.  Should we strip the cities and let our civil society collapse to go defend the frontier?”

               Kiluron hissed in frustration.  “I don’t know.  We could at least pull troops from the Rovis border, something, to throw at this army massing.  And what did Vere mean, nonhuman?  How do we all keep forgetting that part?  This isn’t just some barbarian tribes from the Unclaimed Territories getting restless and deciding to test our defenses while we have our guard down.  What are they?  Demons?”

               Doil shook his head and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  What do you want me to say?  We’ll just have to hope that the combined forces from the outposts will be enough to delay the invasion long enough for us to get our feet under us.”

               “I can’t do that!” Kiluron exclaimed, before subsiding just as rapidly.  “Isn’t there anything we can do?  Anything we should be doing?  I don’t know that I can go through this crisis walking around the walls and giving empty encouragement to the soldiers.  I want to be out there, doing something.”  At Doil’s expression, he added “I promise I won’t act on any really bad ideas.”

               “What do you want me to say, my lord?” Doil asked.  “I have to go help Borivat determine how much seed we can spare from the emergency seed banks for consumption and still have enough to replant.”

               “Alright,” Kiluron sighed, letting him go.  Once Doil was out of sight, he turned his steps towards the barracks.  Even if he couldn’t go defend the frontier, they would need to prepare for the city’s defense, and there was surely something he could do to help with that.  Even if it might be nothing more than hauling supplies from one guard tower to another.

               It had been a good year, Daribro reflected, since he had been appointed Merolate’s leader in a joint expedition between Merolate and the Isle of Blood to study Heart City and its purported Guardian on Borivat’s recommendation.  Although he remained skeptical of claims about some kind of demonic spirit watching over the ruins of the once-magnificent civilization, he could not fault the Blood Priests on the strength or rigor of their scholarship, and the archeological advancements that had been made together over the past year, year 84 SU (since unification) were truly remarkable.  Where most scholars believed that Heart City could not have even been built before 1300 PU, his team was increasingly convinced that it may have held sway for as much as eight hundred years before its demise in 1100 PU.  In fact, their progress had been so remarkable that he had recently penned a letter to his friend, Borivat, bragging that they could conceivably translate Heart City’s language within another year of study.

               Now, though, he was sitting his tent on an early spring night, the kind of spring night that reminded one of the winter that was not long in its slumber, listening to a warning that he had trouble taking seriously.  In fact, if he had not been working with its deliverer, Priest Fel, for the past year, and been constant witness to the man’s objective and rigorous scholarship, along with his personally moral and judicious comportment, he likely would have dismissed the warning out of hand.  Yet in light of what he knew of Priest Fel, the Isle’s leader in this archeological expedition, he could not do so lightly.

               “Tell me again what you think is going on?” Daribro rubbed his temples and reached for a tumbler of spirits.  He was a scholar, not a military man; dealing with emergencies in the middle of the night was not his modus operandi.  There were very few scholarly emergencies that could not wait for dawn.

               Perhaps Priest Fel was frustrated, or impatient, but he gave little sign of this.  Instead, he calmly restated his position, as he already had twice before.  “Not long ago, the Isle of Blood attempted to attract and contain the nascent manifestation of the Guardian demon that was awakened from its suspended state by the conflict here in Heart City last year.  That effort failed miserably, leaving the Guardian free and fully empowered, much to our dismay.  Our scrying revealed that it had fled into the far northlands to gather its strength, and High Priest Yorin expressed hope that it would remain there for some time.  However, it has gained strength much faster than we expected, and that is almost certainly due to some kind of residual imbalance withing the Gältrok’nör.  This goes against everything I have ever understood about the nature of the world’s balance, but even I can now sense that it is true.  Magic is humming like the tension before a lightning strike in this place, Daribro.  The Guardian is coming, and I fear what will become of us when it returns.”

               There were still scholars who studied such teachings, Daribro knew, mostly those philosophers looking at grand puzzles about the nature of the universe or the motion of the stars, the cosmic scale kind of problems.  It wasn’t spoken of very often, and kept rather quiet, because of the fraught religious nature of the theories, but there was some academic evidence to support the possibility of balance being fundamental to the world.  Daribro had not studied these himself, however – he was an archeologist, not some kind of armchair-bound philosopher – and what little he did recall was that most secular versions of imbalance teachings asserted that the world was naturally balancing.  Certainly they did not allow for demons.  “Can you prove this?” Daribro asked Fel.  “Even if we decide to go, we can’t just abandon our research.  It will take at least a day to pack everything up and bring everyone together.”

               Fel hesitated.  “The short answer is yes, but not legally.  Not within Merolate’s borders, anyway,” he admitted.  “How can I help you understand the urgency of this threat?  If we are still here when the Guardian arrives, I can almost guarantee that we will be killed.  It’s nearly impossible to precisely predict what an ancient demon will do, especially one as powerful as the Guardian, but there is a reason it is called the Guardian – it was summoned to defend Heart City and its rulers, and its power is linked directly to the Gältrok’nör.  It will almost certainly regard us as interlopers and deal with us accordingly, if only to bolster its own power.  Scholarship can be reworked – lives cannot.  We must leave.  Tonight.”

               “I can’t authorize that, Fel!” Daribro exclaimed.  “Look, I like you.  I’ve come to have a lot of respect for your scholarship, and the work your people do.  Blood, if I could have a team with the kind of work-ethic and team mentality that your priests do, instead of the egotistical, over-stuffed, arrogant academics I have, myself included, I’d be thrilled.  But I can’t sign off on a haphazard and rushed evacuation, an abandonment of everything we’ve managed to achieve over the past year, based on what is basically your hunch.  I just can’t!  Do you know how that would look, back in Merolate?”

               “I would gladly face High Priest Yorin’s castigation and contempt, if it meant getting my people out of here alive,” Fel replied.  “Are not your peoples’ lives worth more to you than your reputation with Merolate’s leadership?  Is it not better to be safe and look like a fool, than to look smart and be dead?”

               “Of course I care about my peoples’ lives!  But it’s just not that simple!”  Daribro sighed.  “Look, I’ll tell you what.  We’ll plan to leave no later than tomorrow afternoon.  That will put us away from this place by tomorrow night, and still give us some time to gather the most valuable research and artifacts to take with us.  Will that satisfy you?  Is that a good enough compromise?  Because I don’t think I can offer you better than that.”

               For a long moment, Priest Fel hesitated, staring at Daribro as if for some hint on his face of how he might go about changing the archeologist’s mind.  Then, he seemed to slump slightly.  “I understand.  I will gather my priests, and we will do what we can to protect this expedition if the Guardian arrives before we depart.”  He strode to the tent flap, and paused, looking back.  “But I can make no promises as to our success.”

               Then he was gone, and Daribro was left staring at the slightly swinging tent flap and the hints of night just beyond it.  “Blood and balance!” he cursed.  His eyes flicked to the tumbler of spirits, and he downed the rest in a single gulp, feeling it burning his throat in a satisfying fashion.  There would be no peaceful night’s sleep, not this night.  When he was ready, he strode out of his tent and began waking the other scholars, getting them packing.  There was a great deal that needed to be done if they were to be ready to depart in the afternoon, and he did not look forward to the decisions he would have to make.  There would be enemies made today, if nothing else happened.  It made him slow to rouse the others in the expedition, but then he remembered the shadowy threat Fel had seemed so convinced was coming, and shoved aside his personal concerns.  As the priest had said, better to be a living fool than a dead genius.

               As the dawn approached, mist began to rise up from the plains surrounding Heart City and the expedition’s little encampment, which was by then a bustle of activity as grumbling scholars set about determining what artifacts and papers could be left behind, when their preferred answer was “none of them.”  There was nothing unusual about a little mist on a spring morning in that region, and Daribro paid it mind only when it got in the way of his lantern light while inspecting a cartload of artifacts that one of his archeologists was insisting were all of such immense value that none of them could be left behind.  Considering that the cart was creaking and barely holding together beneath the weight of the artifacts, Daribro ordered him to pare down the number unless he wanted to carry them all himself.

               On the other side of the encampment, he could see that the Blood Priests had already torn down their tents and packed everything away.  They stood in a loose circle, their robes stirring in a subtle, predawn breeze, and Daribro wondered what they were thinking, or, for that matter, doing.  Fel had said that they would try to protect the expedition if the Guardian came before they could leave Heart City, but Daribro had no idea what that might look like.  However, it did give him a thought, and he hurried to where the small group of Merolate guardsmen had also finished packing their gear.

               “Lieutenant Welbon,” Daribro called, drawing the man aside.  He had command of a small platoon of soldiers, just a couple of sergeants and ten guardsmen.  “A moment, if you please.”

               When they were away from the scurrying scholars, Daribro stopped, and Welbon frowned at him.  “What is it?” the lieutenant asked.  He was not particularly fond of Daribro, nor of his assignment playing nanny to a bunch of overeager archeologists more concerned about things that had happened centuries ago than with what was happening in the present.

               Looking around warily, Daribro sighed.  “Look, the Blood Priests think that we’re in danger – that’s why we’re evacuating now.  But they think we might be too slow.  If there is some kind of an attack, can you have your men ready to defend us?”

               “That’s our job,” Welbon replied, irritated.  “It would help if we knew what kind of danger we might face?”

               At this, Daribro shrugged.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

               “We’ll do our jobs,” Welbon growled.  “Let us do them.  You do yours.”

               Normally, Daribro wasn’t bothered by his prickly relationship with the lieutenant, but now he hesitated, wondering if in light of what Priest Fel had said he ought to make more of an effort to ensure this man was one his side through whatever might happen.  Then he dismissed the thought as ludicrous.  He still wasn’t entirely convinced that there was really a threat, even if he was convinced enough to have ordered the evacuation.  No point in trying to rebuild bridges that had never existed.  Besides, he doubted that if what Priest Fel said came to pass the soldiers would be of much use, anyway.

               Dawn came and went with everyone still scurrying about, arguing over artifacts and papers and journals, packing food and water, and lamenting their disrupted sleep schedules.  No one was pleased with Daribro, but he was more concerned with getting them moving.  Though he had given until afternoon, and that had seemed a remarkable degree of alacrity last night, when Fel had approached him with an immediate departure, now he worried if perhaps he should have been more paranoid.  When he looked up at the sun to check how long there was before noon, and realized that the early morning mist had never gone away, his concern increased.  The mis should have been burned off by now.  Maybe it was just his imagination getting the better of him, but there was an eerie quality to this mist that left Daribro disturbed.  He took another shot of spirits, and hurried off to where the Blood Priests were waiting, sentinels now barely visible through the dense fog.

               “Please tell me this is just some kind of fluky weather pattern,” Daribro announced, striding up the Priest Fel and adjusting his hat.

               “I do not know,” Priest Fel admitted.  “But at this point, I would not put your trust in hope.  We should leave.  Now.”

               Nervously, Daribro scratched his ear.  “You know, I’m beginning to think you might be right.”  He hesitated.  “I’m going to go tell these folks to hurry themselves up.”

               He was halfway back to the Merolate side of the expedition’s encampment when the screams began, and he redoubled his pace, huffing and puffing as best he could; though he was not overweight, he was not precisely fit.  The mist seemed to be thickening, swirling about in ways that had nothing to do with whatever slight breeze might have existed, and it was no longer a consistent, semi-opaque presence.  It had condensed, forming tendrils, creeping along closer to the ground like a sprawling network of weedy vines.

               “Everybody get out now!” he yelled, though his yell sounded choked and barely audible between his gasps for air.  “Go to the Blood Priests!  Run!”  As if sensing he was trying to deprive it of its prize, tendrils of mist snapped tight around his legs, tripping him.  Daribro struggled, fumbling for his belt knife, as the mist dragged him along the ground.  He had just got his knife out when another misty tentacle reared up above his head.  He opened his mouth to scream, and the mist speared down through his throat.  His body shriveled to dust, and the mist swirled on.

               Welbon and his soldiers had formed a circle with their backs to each other, swords drawn, but their blades cut futilely at the mist, which simply parted and reformed in diaphanous puffs.  It seemed wrong, somehow, that something so insubstantial could be so deadly.  For a time, it seemed as if the mists were actually playing with them, toying with these soldiers who could no more harm it than they could harm the sky.  A few of the archeologists had managed to reach the Blood Priests, and the mists lost patience, striking simultaneously through the soldiers and leaving them crumbling to dust as it flowed on towards the Blood Priests.

               At Fel’s instruction, the Merolate archeologists were allowed into the center of the Blood Priests’ circle.  All six of the priests had their black blades drawn, and had sliced open their palms, giving them access to the magic created by the huge imbalance gathering at Heart City.  With measured steps, they began to walk away from the ruins.  Mist swirled around them, forming terrifying serpents and other, less recognizable figures, even tropical, man-eating plants, that lunged forward and sought to penetrate the Blood Priests’ defenses.  Each lunge was parried, but it was no sure thing; one priest moved a little too slowly, and fell to dust.  Grim-faced, the remaining five priests adjusted their circle to compensate.  Their red robes swirled and seemed to paint them as targets in the cloying mist.

               Though they were moving steadily, if slowly, away from Heart City, the mist gave no sign of letting them go free, moving with them and attacking them over and over, lashing out and darting in whenever they saw an opportunity.  The Blood Priests’ black swords cut block and cut the mist, sending up howls of unearthly pain, but the remains of each misty tendril were simply drawn back into the cloudy morass surrounding them, to reform again.  A few of the priests tried to conjure blasts of elemental magic to clear the mists away, to no avail.  Even a withering torrent of fire was simply absorbed.  Another priest fell, and Priest Fel instructed those that remained to tighten their circle.  If the mist got within the barrier they had formed, they would be beset from both sides, and they would have no chance at all.  Yet there were enough of the Merolate archeologists in their midst that they could not close the circle much further.

               With no discernible impetus, the mist seemed to abruptly lose interest in the retreating group, pulling back from its roving attack upon the Blood Priests and trailing away, leaving the ground clear and brown in every direction.  Priest Fel halted his tiny band of survivors, and exchanged looks with the other three remaining Blood Priests.  They did not know what was happening, but none of them let down their guard.  It did not seem likely the Guardian was simply going to let them go.

               The mist was gathering into one point, right where Priest Fel happening to be looking, the tendrils and tentacles pulling in and pulling together as if sucked into an invisible maw, losing cohesion and darkening in the process.  By the time the last wisp of mist had been absorbed by the growing shadow there, it was inky black, as black as the shadow that now existed independent of any source that might have cast it.  There was a substance to it, an oily blackness, and though it was only the height of an average man, it seemed to loom over the tiny party of survivors.  Perhaps that was because the whole area had taken on a greyish quality, the blue, warm light of day washed away, the whole world gone almost monochrome, save for the Blood Priests’ robes.

               TRESPASSERS…

               Reverberating through Priest Fel’s mind, he didn’t know if the word had been spoken aloud, or directly into his brain.  It seemed to come from everywhere at once, so loud and powerful that Fel had to struggle against the urge to fall to his knees; he saw that several of the other survivors had done just that.  He urged them to their feet, not taking his eyes from the shadowy figure that was still approaching them one slow, deliberate step at a time.  Wherever the shadow stepped, the grass, just beginning to green from its winter dormancy, shriveled and browned and blackened before crumbling to nothing but dust.

               “Hold together,” Priest Fel ordered.  “Whatever you do, don’t run.  That will only make you a target.”

               The shadowy figure, the Guardian, lifted its right arm and flicked it at the ground like it was cracking a whip.  Indeed, a line of shadow uncoiled in a striking line, like moving chasm across the sky, to slash in the group of survivors.  Priest Fel barely ducked beneath its blow in time; two of the archeologists and one of the Blood Priests were not so fast.  When the whiplike blow smashed into them, their bodies turned to ash, spreading out from the point of impact as they were blow apart.  Whipping his sword around to block a bolt of greenish mist, Fel leapt up to avoid the follow-up blow from the whiplike darkness as it was withdrawn back into nothingness.  He sent a blast of pure fire at the Guardian, followed by an ice missile, both of which produced no effect.  The Guardian continued to advance.

               One of the archeologists, losing his nerve, bolted, zigzagging as he pelted along, trying to get away from the approaching Guardian.  Something about the way the Guardian pointed a single finger on an arm it extruded for the purpose without even looking, sending a tendril of mist to strike down the man in shrieking, writhing desperation, seemed almost casual.  It seemed to know that its only real threat came from the three remaining Blood Priests, and even that threat was minimal.  Fel was out of ideas, and out of his element.  It made him think of Herlglut, who would have been so much better suited to these circumstances.

               “I miss you, old friend,” Fel murmured.

               A bolt of yellow-tinged mist struck like lightning from the Guardian at the little group, and Fel held up his sword in both hands, bracing himself against the blast of power.  He felt like his skin was burning, peeling away, and it seemed he was more parting the energy directed towards him than blocking it.  He saw the other Blood Priests struggling in the same way, but the power kept on coming, surging from the Guardian in an unflagging flood.  From the corner of his eye, Fel saw the four remaining archeologists melt away to nothing, and he heard an unnatural thunder rumbling in the sky above them.  Then, one by one, the remaining Blood Priests’ swords and magic failed, and they too were swept to dust.  For a single moment, Fel was alone, bracing against all the power the Guardian had brought to bear, and then he felt his sword shatter in his hands, and he too vanished in the maelstrom of the Guardian’s return to the Gältrok’nör.

               Bounding up the stairs four at a time, one hand on the rough stone wall to keep himself from running into it as he whipped around the tight curves of the spiral staircase, Kiluron narrowly avoided colliding with a group of guardsmen hurrying nearly as fast down the stairs, and then he was up and on the wall, staring out across the plain surrounding Merolate  Somewhere behind him, the messenger who had brought Vere’s request for his presence was struggling through the city streets, but Kiluron had sprinted ahead of him as soon as he heard that Vere had rated this matter urgent.  With the odd, grey-tinged, weak sunlight that was all they had for illumination for the past few days, and the continuing reports of chaos across the Union, Kiluron did not anticipate that good news awaited him.

               They already knew that the five hundred men who had sought to fight a delaying action at the border with the Unclaimed Territories had been defeated in a terrible slaughter.  A few had survived, bringing word back to Merolate of creatures that no blade could harm made of more mist than actual substance.  They had swarmed over the defenders like savage animals, tearing out throats and leaving bodies rotting visibly in their wake.  Of the fifty men to have made it back to Merolate, a dozen were still so numbed by what they had witnessed that they had to be prompted to move, or eat, or even sleep.  Since then, Vere had put the city on a heightened alert, implementing larger guard rotations and enforcing a strict curfew with Prime Wezzix’s permission.  Yet from the reports, Kiluron wondered if any of this would do them any good at all if and when the beasts came for them.

               At the pace they had been moving before, they should have reached Merolate already, but something seemed to have slowed them in what had seemed a headlong march towards the capital.  It had prompted Vere to send scouts out more aggressively, searching for signs of what the enemy forces were doing, if any kind of tactics could be assigned to them.  As Kiluron approached where Vere was conferring with a few of his other officers, he hoped that it was a report from one of those scouts that had prompted his summons.  Even if it was bad news, at least it would be information that they could act upon.

               Dismissing the officers with whom he had been conferring, Vere strode to meet Kiluron as the latter approached.  “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, without preamble.

               Surprised, Kiluron assented, falling into step besides the Guardcaptain as they moved along the wall.  Only when they were some distance from any guardsmen or officers did Vere finally speak again, and even then he kept his voice pitched low.  With the wind, it was hard even for Kiluron to hear what he was saying.

               “We just received a report from one of our scouts who attempted to approach Heart City.  Of the three travelling together, he was the only one to return,” Vere said.  “Their goal was to warn the expedition that was there of the potential forces coming down from the north, but it appears they were too late.  There’s no sign of the expedition, and Heart City is no longer empty.  Apparently, there are shadowy forms that stalk its streets, and buildings where nothing but moldering stone was just days ago.  Somehow, the army from the Unclaimed Territories seems to have already reached Heart City without being encountered anywhere else in the country, and has taken up residence.”

               Kiluron cursed.  “That’s practically the center of the continent.  They could go anywhere from there.”

               Vere agreed.  “But I think we may be wrong to think of this is a classical military threat.  The enemy does not appear to think the way you or I might.  Considering that it ignored the countryside and even other cities and towns on its way to Heart City, I think this enemy is not interested in conquest in the classical sense.  At least, I think we can anticipate it staying in Heart City for a time to consolidate its strength.”

               “Have you informed the Prime yet?” Kiluron asked.

               “Not yet,” Vere admitted.  “I’ve been trying to corroborate the report and get more information.”

               “I think we need to tell the Prime,” Kiluron advised.  “After the issue last year with the demons in Heart City, High Priest Yorin himself came from the Isle of Blood to confer with Prime Wezzix.  It had something to do with Heart City, because that’s when they launched an unprecedented joint expedition to study the place.”  He frowned.  “I don’t know what this is all about, but I have a strong feeling that there’s a connection.  I know the Prime said no way were we going to contact the Isle of Blood about all this, but…”

               Vere nodded.  “I’ll see what more I can learn.  Let me know if you learn anything relevant?  I really hate being in the dark.”

               “Will do,” Kiluron replied.  Then he hurried back to the castle to find the Prime.

               It took until that evening, after refusing to reveal anything to Kiluron upon receipt of his information until the relevant parties could be brought together, for the Prime to gather his core council together in one place: Borivat, Kiluron, Doil, and Vere.  All of them arrived in various iterations of harriedness, with Doil dropping papers in his wake as he scurried into the room, Borivat running ink-stained fingers through his receding hair and leaving purplish stains on his scalp, even Vere slamming the door behind him more loudly than necessary, and then proceeding to glare around the room as if daring the tapestries to say something.  If Kiluron was honest with himself, he was little better than they, since he’d been waiting in the room with his dinner, which he had barely touched, and had spent most of that time instead staring out of one of the high, narrow windows, as if there were answers in that tiny slit of setting sunlight.

               Wezzix himself was late, striding in with a booming of doors and perfunctorily dismissing the supplicants and functionaries scurrying after him; perhaps he closed the chamber’s doors a bit more forcefully than usual, and then he leant upon them with an unusually visible display of weariness.  The others in the room waited for him to catch his breath as he turned to face them.

               “I apologize,” Prime Wezzix began, his voice lacking the declarative quality it often carried.  He sounded more human than Kiluron thought he had ever heard from the Prime.  “It has been a hectic day for me, as it has for all of you, no doubt.  I know that you’re all likely being taken away from much more important matters, but I did not want to go over this more than once, for reasons that I think will soon become clear.”

               He paused then, surveying the room; everyone was leaning forward, intent upon his words.  Kiluron realized he had scooted forward to perch on the very edge of his seat, and hastily sat back, lest his eagerness be noticed.  The knowledge of there being something apparently important to which he had not heretofore been privy had been eating at him since Wezzix had forced him to wait that afternoon.

               Once he was satisfied, Wezzix continued.  “You all will recall last year, when High Priest Yorin visited us after the incident at Heart City.  You will also recall that we negotiated a joint archeological expedition to study the ruins of Heart City, Merolate and the Isle of Blood working together for common purpose.  What you do not know, with the exception of Borivat, is the true nature of the expedition there.  Even Daribro, who Borivat tapped to lead the study, did not know its true purpose or importance.”  When he paused for breath there, Kiluron could not help but think that he was deliberately torturing his audience.  “We let it be known that the Isle of Blood wished to study the aftereffects of the summoners’ actions in that place, but the truth is much darker.  High Priest Yorin warned me of a threat that could come from the chamber Kiluron and Doil found at the center of the city, which is called the Gältrok’nör; the real purpose for the joint expedition to study Heart City was to enable the Isle of Blood to take measures to prevent the Guardian, as they call it, from returning to power.  I do not accept the religious underpinnings of their explanations or interpretations of events, but regardless, it is now clear that their efforts have failed, and that the Guardian once against inhabits the Gältrok’nör.”

               Looking around the room, Kiluron tried to gauge reactions to this news.  For himself, he was more than a little confused, and mildly offended that Prime Wezzix had not seen fit to share this information with him previously.  Doil looked distraught, perhaps feeling that he was somehow responsible for this, and Vere looked angry, although he was careful to keep his expression muted to a dull smolder.  Then Prime Wezzix was speaking again, and Kiluron turned his attention to him.  “I have every reason to believe that the Guardian is a terrible threat to all of Merolate.  With the failure of the Blood Priests to contain it, I have come to the only conclusion, the only path that is now open to me.  Tomorrow at first light, I will leave for Heart City and attempt to negotiate with the Guardian.  A small company of guards will accompany me to the city, but I will enter alone.”  Vere was already starting to object, but Wezzix held up his hand.  Borivat, to Kiluron’s surprise, simply looked resigned, his eyes haunted.  “My decision on this matter is final; I did not call all of you here to debate it.  However, I do not know how long these negotiations may take, how fruitful they will be, or even if I will survive.  Measures must be taken in the meantime to ensure that Merolate continues to function smoothly.”

               A yawning pit seemed to have opened up in front of Kiluron as what Wezzix was saying began to process fully in his mind.  The Prime was continuing to speak, but the words seemed simultaneously far away and unspeakably close, pressing on his chest.  “Therefore, I am elevating Kiluron immediately to the status of acting-Prime in my absence, to be installed as Prime if I fail to…return.  Doil, you will be Chief Advisor for the acting-Prime.”  He seemed to cast aside his official role then, and addressed Kiluron and Doil directly.  “I know that this is not how any of us envisioned this might happen.  It is too soon: I doubt that either of you feels ready.  Neither did I, when I became Prime, and I was much older than either of you now.  But you will still have Borivat, should you need the wisdom he offers.”  He hesitated, seeming conflicted, and then he sighed.  “I am sorry to put this on you like this.”

               It felt to Kiluron like someone else was speaking for him, controlling his movements, because he was fairly certain that his brain was no longer functioning correctly.  He didn’t feel like he should have even been able to move enough to speak, but he did.  “I will do the best I can,” he heard himself say.

               More was said, other details explained and determined, arrangements made, but none of it seemed capable of making an impression on Kiluron.  All he could do was sit in his chair, staring into space, with his mind going around and around over the same circles over and over again.  He wasn’t ready to be Prime, even acting Prime.  Especially not in a time of war and enormous chaos, as was now the case.  And as much as Prime Wezzix claimed that this was only a precaution and that he would be coming back after he completed negotiations with this Guardian, the preparations that were being made and the moods of the people in the chamber, especially Wezzix and Borivat, did not support that assertion.  There was a finality to what was being said and done and planned for, and that finality was that Kiluron was going to have to be Prime.

               Somehow, the rest of the meeting passed by, and then Prime Wezzix was dismissing everyone.  For once, he was the first to leave, saying he needed to ensure he got a full night’s sleep so that he would be at his best for negotiations with the Guardian.  He looked for a long moment at Kiluron, seemed about to say something, but then nodded sharply and vanished down the hall.  Vere vanished after him.  Shaking himself from his stupor, Kiluron watched as Borivat left, following after Wezzix, leaving Kiluron and Doil alone in the chamber.

               “How can it be,” Kiluron asked aloud, not specifically addressing anyone, “that I can go almost my entire life, from the time I was five years old, knowing that I would one day be Prime, preparing for that day, and now that I am Prime – well, acting Prime – not feel the slightest bit ready for it?”

               “Change is hard, my lord,” Doil said quietly.  Both of their voices seemed small, alone in the chamber.  The sun had long since set, and a few servants had lit the lanterns, but it was still dim.

               Kiluron rolled his head around to look at Doil.  “’Change is hard?’  How helpful.”  He sighed.  “You can sense it too, can’t you?  Wezzix doesn’t think he’s going to come back.”

               “You can’t know that, my lord.”  Doil’s reply was too quick; he agreed with Kiluron.

               “Sure.”  Kiluron scrubbed his face with his hands.  “You and me now, I guess.  Our first and only act seems likely to be presiding over the dissolution and destruction of the Merolate Union.  All because of some thousand-year-old demon!”  He smacked the table, his worry and fear giving way to a burst of anger that flared and died, leaving him just as empty as before.

               “Don’t talk like that, my lord,” Doil protested.  He had come to stand beside Kiluron, and now he sat down in the chair next to him.  “That’s not how a Prime should talk.”

               Kiluron glared at him.  “Well, then it’s a good thing that I’m not Prime.  I’m just acting Prime, so I’ll talk however the balance I want.”

               Doil sighed.  “I don’t think that Prime Wezzix would be taking this risk if he didn’t think you were up to this task.”

               “I guess not.”  Kiluron slumped on the table, then sat up just as sharply.  “Doil, what powers do I have as acting Prime?”

               Hesitating, Doil thought about it.  “All of the powers of the Prime, I believe.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “So I could issue an order that counters that of Prime Wezzix?  And it would be obeyed?”

               “Well, yes…” Doil hemmed, growing concerned.  “But Prime Wezzix is still here…trying to go against him before he leaves would be a terrible decision.”

               “No no, that’s not what I meant,” Kiluron protested.  “But let’s say that, tomorrow morning after he leaves, I want to ask someone to do something that was something the Prime had previously forbade.  I could do that?”

               With a heavy sigh, Doil nodded.  “I really wish you’d tell me what you’re planning.  I can’t advise you if I don’t know what you’re thinking, and I have a really bad feeling about whatever scheme you’ve concocted, given your previous mood…”

               “Cheer up!” Kiluron exclaimed, although it was forced.  “I promise I’m not going to issue an order that will lead to the dissolution of the Merolate Union.  At least, not yet.”

               “Tell me what you’re going to do?” Doil implored him.

               Kiluron just waggled his eyebrows in what he thought was a mysterious way, but from Doil’s suppressed snort of laughter, was probably only silly.  “You’ll find out in the morning.  Tell Borivat that I want an audience with him first thing after the Prime’s departure.”

               “Yes, my lord,” Doil replied, and they parted for the evening, each with their own burdens and worries.

               Somehow, the morning came.  More than once, Kiluron thought it wouldn’t, and not just because the odd, greenish-grey quality that all days had now assumed made it difficult to tell when the sun was rising or setting.  For most of the night he had alternated between wishing that the morning would come faster, and wishing that it wouldn’t come at all.  He had slept very little, instead sitting up in bed or at his desk, staring blankly ahead and thinking that there was so much more he could have been doing to prepare for this moment, if only he had known it was going to come so soon.  Prime Wezzix had been ruling Merolate for longer than Kiluron had been alive; it seemed unimaginable that there would be another Prime, especially that it would be him, despite his title as Sub-Prime.  As much as Kiluron wanted to believe that Wezzix would come back from his negotiations with the Guardian – and there was still a chance of that – he had a hard time convincing himself it was likely.

               Before the sun had even fully risen, Prime Wezzix had set out with his small company of guardsmen, leaving the city with no fanfare and no further announcements.  He said nothing more to Kiluron before he left, and Kiluron wondered why that was.  Shouldn’t there have been some kind of last moment wisdom imparted?  Some piece of advice or at least words of encouragement?  Or did the Prime really believe he was going to survive the negotiations with the Guardian and return to being Merolate’s Prime?  None of these questions had obvious answered, and Kiluron gave up on them.  He would have at least gone out to say goodbye to the Prime, and good luck – it wasn’t like he had been sleeping, anyway – but the Prime had not bothered to inform him of his imminent departure.

               Since he was only acting Prime, Kiluron decided it would not be appropriate to take up all of the mantels and trappings of the Prime, and he received Borivat in the conference chamber, with Doil at his side, still looking concerned about what was about to transpire.  Kiluron leaned forward eagerly as soon as Borivat arrived.

               Borivat bowed respectfully before taking his seat.  “You asked to see me, my lord?”

               “Yes.”  Kiluron had to take a deep breath before he continued; despite his protestations to Doil, he was not entirely confident in what he was about to do.  “Why did Prime Wezzix refuse to involve the Isle of Blood in what is going on here?  Aren’t they in the best position to help with this Guardian?  I seem to recall that Doil and I would not have survived our last trip to Heart City if it weren’t for Priest Herlglut.”

               Borivat hesitated, seeming surprised by this line in inquiry.  “I do not claim to know the Prime’s mind, my lord, but I believe he felt they had already failed by allowing the Guardian to return to power.”

               “Maybe so, maybe so.”  Kiluron said it mostly to say something; he had needed to ask as a precaution, but he had doubted it would change his decision.  “Borivat, as acting Prime, I am officially rescinding the dictum against involving the Isle of Blood in Merolate’s conflict with the Guardian.”  He paused.  “You have had some contact with the Isle before, correct?”

               Borivat nodded.  Doil was watching Kiluron with undisguised surprise, and Kiluron had to try his best to ignore him.  “Although I hope that Prime Wezzix’s negotiations will succeed, I do not think that he would have made me acting Prime if he thought highly of his chances for a peaceful resolution,” Kiluron declared.  “Therefore, until we hear from Prime Wezzix, as acting Prime I declare Merolate to be on official war footing, against the Guardian and its occupation of Heart City.  Borivat, you are to travel immediately to the Isle of Blood as my official envoy to High Priest Yorin.  Your goal is to secure negotiations between me and him for a military alliance against the Guardian, but failing that you are to gather as much information as you can about this Guardian and how we can go about fighting it.”

               Hesitating, Borivat nodded.  “As you say, my lord, but I do not think Merolate is in a position to go to a wartime footing, with the crop blights and other crises across the provinces…”

               “Unfortunately, war is upon us,” Kiluron interrupted, wishing as he did so that he felt half as confident as he was acting.  He was more than half convinced that Borivat was simply going to tell him he was crazy and that would be the end of it.  “Will you obey me in this?”

               This time, Borivat’s response was faster.  “Yes.”  He paused, looking Kiluron in the eye, and then he bowed.  “My lord.”  A hint of a sad smile flickered on his lips.  “I think you will make a strong Prime, if we survive the next days.”

               For some reason, that robbed Kiluron of his conviction more than an objection would have, and he found himself bowing in return.  “Thanks, Borivat.  I hope you’re right.”

               “I try to make it a habit,” Borivat replied.  “Now, if I may take my leave, I believe that I have some diplomacy to which I must attend.”

               When Borivat had left, Kiluron turned to Doil.  “What do you think?  Did I do alright?”

               Sagging slightly in his chair, Doil nodded.  “That was quite impressive, my lord.  Although next time, would you mind telling me what you have in mind before you dramatically restructure Merolate foreign policy?”

               Kiluron laughed, a little higher than he wished.  “I will, I promise.”  He lowered his voice, and scratched at his clothes, which were already cold and sweaty.  He’d been more nervous than he had realized.  “To be honest, I was afraid if I verbalized what I was going to do that I’d lose my nerve.”  He looked in the direction that Borivat had gone.  “Now we just have to hope it works.”

               At the edge of Heart City, Prime Wezzix, the third Prime of Merolate since its unification eighty-five years ago, dismissed his small company of guards.  He could tell that, although they were unnerved by the sight that lay before them, they were even more reluctant to leave him alone.  They were good men, some of the best Vere had; Wezzix had known he would get nothing less after forbidding Vere himself from joining him.  Still, they obeyed, and Wezzix was left alone.  He had chosen to camp a single night outside of Heart City before attempting to make contact with the Guardian, but found that he regretted the decision; neither he nor the men had slept well, with the creepy mist that seemed to move on its own and the eerie light coming from the center of the city.  Entire buildings seemed to have been restored, ghostly version of how perhaps they had once appeared.

               Pulling his formal cloak tightly about himself to ward off the early morning chill, Prime Wezzix set off into Heart City.  The mist swirled around him as he moved, thickening below his waist and glowing with an eerie phosphorescence in the dawn’s light, but though it seemed to have more substance than that to which any ordinary mist had claim, it did not impede his progress.  Buildings with doors twice or even three times the height of a man and looked to be sketched out of shadow and sewn of the fabric of dreams reared on either side of the road he walked towards the center of the city.  At first, there were many of these buildings, and aside from their proportions and their insubstantial structures they could have been buildings in the older sections of Merolate, but they grew more immense and monolithic as Wezzix drew closer to the city’s center.  They seemed too to become more substantial, and they reared high into the air, higher than Wezzix had thought buildings could remain stable.

               Although he had no desire to die, nor to become a sacrifice for Merolate, he was still convinced that he had made the only viable decision.  The Union would crumble if this threat was not addressed, and it was now clear that the Guardian was the wellspring for both the invasion and the corruptions of people, plants, and things that plagued the land.  He had hoped that the Blood Priests would be able to prevent this chain of events, as Yorin had implied, but clearly they had failed, and Prime Wezzix had no intention of turning to them for help again.  Perhaps he had been foolish to place even the wager he had on the success of their magical pseudoscience, but at the time he had not even entirely credited that the threat existed.  Now, he had to address the problem as a matter of geopolitics, a leader of one nation today meeting the leader of another nation in the past.  Somehow, he had to convince the Guardian that conflict between the Merolate Union and Heart City would only be harmful to both of them.

               That would first require attaining an audience with the Guardian, which Wezzix was still not entirely certain how to accomplish.  His only plan consisted of proceeding through Heart City to the Gältrok’nör, and demanding to be heard.  As far as plans went, it stood on much less stable ground than Wezzix typically preferred.  At least his negotiating strategy was more certain, albeit only relatively.  He had not way of knowing what international norms may have been during the age when Heart City had been a dominant force on Lufilna, but there were no other known ruins from that period on the continent.  His negotiating position would therefore be straightforward: he was willing to go so far as to cede Heart City and the surrounding territory to the Guardian, in return for a complete cessation of hostilities against the people and places of the Merolate Union.

               If this really was how Heart City had once looked, or a spectral recreation of its former splendor, then even Wezzix had to admit that it was impressive.  He was proud of the civilizations on Lufilina, and especially of Merolate’s accomplishments.  Over the decades of his leadership, he had seen advancements in architecture that made cities larger, cleaner, and more organized than he had seen in his youth.  When he had been Sub-Prime, they had still needed a half dozen blummoxes to close or open the city’s main gates; now a handful of guards, or even a single guard if there was no other option, could close them, thanks to the gear mechanisms.  Yet compared to what he could see of Heart City, these advancements seemed to pale next to the shear scale of the place.  It really was, as the report he had read indicated, a city that seemed to have been built for giants.

               For all its architectural immensity, Heart City still felt dead, ancient.  Nothing moved, save for the swirling mist, and there were no signs of life in any form.  Wezzix considered that at least nothing had arisen to stop his advance; perhaps the Guardian was willing to grant him an audience.  Or, perhaps it simply considered a lone human walking through the heart of its domain to be beneath its notice.  His walk culminated at the Gältrok’nör itself, which was no longer a mere crater in the ground.  A building reared up around it, an obelisk that dominated the entire center of the city and soared into the sickly sky.  He was no scholar, but Wezzix thought it must have easily been twice as tall as Merolate’s highest spires.  Its sides were smooth, and seemed to be plated in metal, although of course all of this had an insubstantial quality to it, a mistiness, that made Wezzix wonder whether he would be able to truly enter the building, or even if he ought to open or simple walk through the door.

               As he had gone deeper into the city, the mist had thickened and risen, until it came almost to his neck.  When Wezzix reached out for the door cut into the face of the obelisk, it gave slightly at his touch, and then his fingers found purchase, and he was able to push it open.  The mist stayed outside, and it was with some relief that Wezzix left it behind.  Instead of closing, the door faded away and reappeared behind him, cutting off his view of the outside world.  For all that the building seemed to be made of semi-corporeal mist, it cut off his view of the rest of Heart City, and if his boots had not been sinking slightly into the substance of the floor, he would have been convinced he was standing in a kind of marble atrium.  Yet his steps echoed as he walked forward, looking around as he did.  Nothing but him appeared to move.

               He was halfway across the atrium when a voice boomed through the space into Wezzix’s head.  “TRESPASSER…”

               Stopping where he was, Wezzix held up his hands.  “I am no trespasser.  I am Prime Wezzix, ruler of the Merolate Union.  I’ve come to negotiate with the ruler of Heart City.”  Despite his nerves, his voice was steady.  This was not the first fraught negotiation in which he had participated.

               “USURPER!” the Guardian boomed.  “HOW DARE YOU GLORIFY YOURSELF!  CAST YOURSELF DOWN UPON THE GROUND AND PLEAD FORGIVENESS FROM YOUR GODS.  ONLY THE HIGH LORD MAY RULE THIS LAND.

               The Guardian’s voice was such that the room itself trembled and wavered around Wezzix, but the Prime stood firm.  “I will not be cowed by empty threats, Guardian.  Times have changed; there are no high lords any longer.  You, not I, are the would-be usurper here.  But I am prepared to negotiate a reasonable arrangement…”

               An incomprehensible roar echoing inside Wezzix’s skull, and the atrium dissolved into mist around him, swirling in a confusing maelstrom.  Tendrils shot up as the floor deteriorated around him, dropping him twice his own height to the crater-like formation that had been hidden by the spectral floor, even as those tendrils wrapped around his wrists and ankles, yanking him back up from the now bloodied stones and suspending him, spreadeagled, in the center of the crater, revolving slowly.  Though he struggled, there was no give in the mist that held him.  A face formed before him, the size of a castle and more reptilian than human.  “THERE WILL BE NO NEGOTIATION.  MY MASTERS WILL RETURN, AND I WILL HOLD THIS LAND FOR THAT DAY.  YOU ARE NOTHING, HUMAN.  BOW IN SUPPLICATION TO YOUR GODS!  PRAY, THAT THEY MIGHT TAKE YOUR LIFE AND END YOUR SUFFERING!

               Pain shot through Wezzix’s body, every nerve flaring to its fullest, and he could not keep from screaming.  On and on he screamed, and the pain continued unabated, unending, unwavering.  Around him the mist swirled, and though Wezzix tried to think, to come up with some way to save himself, to save his country, the pain made it difficult even to make his mind function.  The last thing he was aware of before losing consciousness in the face of that terrible agony was Heart City rising again around him, and the Guardian looking down at him like a man might look down upon a child throwing a tantrum.

               “It’s up to you now, Kiluron.  I’m so sorry,” Wezzix thought.  Then the pain overwhelmed him, and he lost consciousness.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E11: Old Blood, Part 1. The story will conclude in Blood Magic S1:E12: Old Blood, Part 2. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the final episode in the season will go live on December 31st, 2020.

Need more Blood Magic in your life? See our additional resources on the main page, and consider participating in our Blood Magic forum.

Copyright 2020, IGC Publishing

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