Sweat prickled around Kiluron’s collar, which was much tighter than he usually preferred to wear, and he wiped more sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.  The coat was military in cut, although it was not technically a uniform; Doil said it was appropriate finery for a leader of a nation at war, even if the nature of that war was completely alien to anything Kiluron had ever imagined.  He tugged at the collar, trying to make it slightly more comfortable, and earning himself a cross look from Doil.

               “You shouldn’t sweat so much,” Doil admonished.  “It will make you look nervous, and that will make you seem weak.  You don’t want to appear weak before High Priest Yorin.”

               Kiluron gave Doil a sour look.  “Thanks, genius.  I’ll just turn off the sweat like closing a door.  That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”  Though he admitted that he was nervous, and that he was sweating more than usual.  That seemed to happen a lot, since he had become acting Prime, and he wondered if Prime Wezzix had experienced the same thing.  That made him wonder about the old Prime; they had heard nothing from him or the soldiers who had accompanied him to Heart City in more than ten days.  “When is Yorin supposed to get here?”

               Doil glanced at the sun outside.  “Very soon, my lord.  I believe that his ship just docked, and that he and Borivat will be making their way towards the castle as we speak.”

               With a deliberate effort, Kilruon kept himself from fidgeting again with his collar.  “Can we go over our position again?” he asked.  Though he knew that he couldn’t see the castle entrance from his window, it didn’t stop him from glancing out of it nervously.

               Instead of arguing, Doil just nodded.  “What are the points we must get from the Isle?”

               “Warriors.  Whatever else the negotiations include, we must have Blood Priests who can help us fight the Guardian and free Prime Wezzix.”  Kiluron closed his eyes.  “Ideally, we’ll also gain their help in banishing the Guardian from Heart City, though containing it there would be acceptable.”  He sighed.  “I feel like I sound too much like you.”

               “That’s just because of how much you’ve rehearsed,” Doil assured him.  “What are we will to give up?”

               “The ban on Blood Magic within Merolate’s borders, the prohibition on Blood Priests, financial support for the Isle,” Kiluron rattled off.  Under his breath, he added: “just about anything, if it will return the sky to normal and defeat that demon.”

               “Very good,” Doil affirmed.  “Now, we have a relatively weak hand, going into this, but we don’t need to let High Priest Yorin know that.  However, we should assume that he knows as much or more than we do about the Guardian and the level of danger we’re in.”

               Kiluron adjusted the formal sword on his belt, wishing that it was the standard guardsman sword he usually carried.  “I know.”  He took a deep breath, and locked eyes with Doil.  “I don’t feel ready.”

               Doil bobbed.  “No, my lord.  I don’t, either.”  He tapped the side of his head.  “But I think we are.  And I trust you.”

               “Then I hope I don’t let you down.  Let us all down.”  Kiluron stood for a moment, and then took a deep breath.  “Alright.  Let’s do this.”

               Though it was morning, it was dark in the audience chamber where he and Doil had decided to receive High Priest Yorin and his delegation of Blood Priests.  Lanterns, braziers, and candles all burned throughout the room, but their light seemed wan and weak, unable to alleviate the dismal aspect.  It was odd how flame could be so warm and welcoming against the full darkness of night, but become so weak and insignificant against a partial light.  With the Guardian’s influence spreading across the land, even when the sun was up it was a sickly grey-green, along with the sky, and neither seemed to brighten much beyond predawn levels throughout the day.  It made Kiluron nervous and snappish, and he knew he wasn’t the only one.

               Guardcaptain Vere tromped in, a scowl marring his features that Kiluron didn’t think had left since the Guardian had first shown itself.  He snapped a salute that seemed to draw attention to his deeply shadowed eyes as he stood before Kiluron.  “Glad I got in before your higher profile visitors,” he said.  His voice was monotonous, as if he no longer had the energy for normal human inflection.  “The soldiers I sent with Prime Wezzix just got back.  They wanted to stay and wait for him, but I told them they were needed here.  They report no movement from the Guardian since Prime Wezzix entered Heart City.”

               “Do you still expect an attack?” Kiluron asked.  Their best guess at the Guardian’s intentions were that it wanted to reclaim all of Lufilna, and it had certainly seemed poised to do so when it had been massing forces along Merolate’s border with the Unclaimed Territories.  Then it had gone straight to Heart City and hadn’t since stirred.

               “I don’t know what to expect,” Vere admitted.  Kiluron wondered if he needed to remind the man to sleep, but decided that Guardcaptain Vere was at least a decade or two his senior, and should know when he needed rest.  “At this point, the Guardian won’t need to conquer us; there won’t be a country left to conquer.”  What hadn’t changed after the Guardian’s return to Heart City was the sickening of crops and people, and the decaying of infrastructure.  When letters actually got through to the capitol, Doil said the governors were reporting more of the same: streams of refugees they couldn’t house or feed, metal and stoneworks crumbling, woodworks rotting.  The whole country seemed to be falling apart, and he was at a loss how to fix it.  His desperate gamble was that the Blood Priests would be able to fight this force that was clearly beyond his ken.

               “Thanks, Vere,” Kiluron said.  “Keep the guards on alert, just in case.”  He glanced at Doil, who nodded slightly, and he took a deep breath.  “Also, begin preparing for a significant movement towards Heart City.  That’s where all of this is coming from, and one way or another, I can’t help but think that we’re going to have to go there if we want to get out of this nightmare.”

               For a moment, Vere hesitated.  Then he snapped another salute.  “I’ll see to it, Sir.”  Then he turned on his heel and disappeared, leaving Kiluron and Doil again alone in the audience chamber.

               “He looked exhausted,” Kiluron remarked to Doil, who raised a tired eyebrow at him.

               “Aren’t we all?” Doil remarked.  His own eyes were almost as deeply shadowed as Vere’s.

               “Can’t afford to be tired,” Kiluron mumbled, ignoring his own need for sleep.  Even when he did find a few moments to lay down, he found he couldn’t really rest.  Not with Prime Wezzix a captive of the Guardian, and that horrible, oppressive force lying over everything.  Even though half the time he felt like there was nothing he could do, it didn’t stop him from feeling like he should have been doing something.

               A firm rap upon the door came, and Kiluron straightened, scrubbing at his face and straightening his jacket.  He glanced at Doil, who gave him a thin smile that was probably supposed to be encouraging but looked almost sickly, and squared his shoulders.  “Enter,” he proclaimed, in what he hoped was a suitably authoritative tone.  It came out sounding hollow and echoey, unable to fill the space as well as he would have wished.

               When the doors swung open, they admitted Borivat, who took a few steps into the chamber, then bowed to Kiluron.  “My lord Kiluron, acting-Prime of the Merolate Union, vested leader of the six provinces, and the fifth of this line, I present High Priest Yorin of the Isle of Blood.”  He bowed again, and then stepped off to the side as Kiluron rose.

               The tapping of a gnarled, ebony cane preceded High Priest Yorin as the ancient man shuffled into the audience chamber.  His red robes and black sword as always seemed a little too large and heavy for his frail frame as he made his way to the seat at the table across from Kiluron.  Two other priests accompanied him as attendants, gathering up his cloak for him and helping him with his chair before retreating once he was situated.

               “I don’t suggest getting old,” High Priest Yorin mused, meeting Kiluron’s eyes.  “It makes simple things an enormous bother, and contrary to popular belief, I’m not entirely convinced that it makes one any wiser.”

               “I only hope that you’re wrong,” Kiluron said, hoping he didn’t sound as forced and unnatural as he thought he sounded in his own head.  “It seems to me that we could all use the wisdom of age in these fraught times.”  He hesitated.  “High Priest Yorin, I am pleased that you have made the time to see me on such short notice.”

               This was greeted with a wheezy chuckle.  “You’ve roused my curiosity,” Yorin admitted.  “Acting-Prime of Merolate for less than a month, and already courting a change to policy that has stood for centuries?”

               “There have been time of greater cooperation between the Union and the Isle before,” Kiluron protested.  “I wouldn’t paint it as quite so unprecedented as that.”

               “Oh yes, surely,” Yorin agreed.  “Yet I find that it gives me hope for the future, this gesture you’ve made, this openness you’ve shown.  And that is a rare thing for an old man living beneath this grey-green sky.”

               Kiluron couldn’t quite suppress a wary glance upwards, though of course the sky was invisible through the stone of the ceiling.  He refocused on Yorin.  “As it happens, you represent hope to me at the moment, as well.”

               Somehow, more furrows appeared on High Priest Yorin’s wrinkled brow.  “Is that so?”

               “Yes.”  Kiluron shifted in his chair.  “I know that your priests were studying something regarding this Guardian while on the joint Heart City expedition.  In the same spirit of cooperation, I’m hopeful that you might be able to share with us some of what you learned from those studies.”  From what he had rehearsed with Doil, he knew that the next line was to explain how he thought that Prime Wezzix had made a mistake, keeping the Isle out of the struggle with the Guardian, but sitting there he found he couldn’t go through with it.  “Right now, I don’t have any idea how we’re supposed to fight this demon, and I’m really hoping that you’ll be able to help us.”

               Settling back in his chair, Yorin rubbed his chin, lips pursed.  “This is an unusually open admission, from someone in your position.”

               Kiluron swallowed and nodded.  It was the same thing that had gotten him in trouble when he had tried to negotiate with Governor Parl, yet he thought it was also what had ultimately saved the negotiations when the Blood Priests arrived.  “I know that.  But we’re not going to get anywhere without honesty.  Besides, I think you know already just how bad of a position we’re in when it comes to the Guardian.  Might as well be up front about it.”

               Yorin was silent for a long moment, and Kiluron began to worry before the High Priest answered.  “I have long asserted that the divisions between us would come to ill one day.  The Blood Empire was a terrible thing, but it has been centuries since they ruled, and we are no more the same as they than you are the same as you were when this continent tore itself apart in endless war.  This is an inherently magical land, and hiding from that is perhaps what has, in part, brought us to this juncture.”  He held up a slightly trembling hand.  “Not that I hold my own Priests blameless.  Both of our peoples ought to have done more to bridge the divides and distrust between us…”

               “Then let this be the first step,” Kiluron declared.  “Help us free this land, and Prime Wezzix, from the Guardian.”

               “It cannot be quite so simple,” Yorin observed.  “All things require balance, even if in some respects our interests here align.  It is true that the Isle would not flourish with Lufilna dominated by the Guardian, but any attempt to defeat the Guardian will be costly for all involved.”

               “What kinds of costs?” Kiluron asked.  He was aware of Doil and Borivat on the sidelines, and he wished he could have conferred with them.  They would know what was appropriate.  “If you can give us tools to fight, we can do the fighting.”

               This produced a wry smile from Yorin.  “If only such a simple solution existed.”  He seemed to hesitate, and then met Kiluron’s eyes.  “If we are to do this, if Merolate and the Isle are to work together in an alliance against the Guardian, the Blood Priests will require concessions that you may find…distasteful.”

               “What do you have in mind?” Kiluron asked.  It would at least be a place to start the negotiations, though he worried about Yorin’s allusion to concessions.  What kinds of concessions would he find particularly distasteful?  Would he demand that Merolate cede territory to the Isle?  Convert to the Balancing religion?

               “I want the borders opened to the Blood Priests again, that they might preach to the faithful within Merolate’s borders,” Yorin declared.  “I want an exchange of scholars between the Isle and Merolate’s universities, on a standing basis.  And I want you, Acting-Prime Kiluron, to become Prime permanently, effective immediately.  I’ll also require guarantees that any agreements we make will be honored, regardless of the outcome in the conflict with the Guardian, provided we are both still in a position to honor our agreements.”

               “But, part of the goal is to rescue Prime Wezzix!” Kiluron protested.  “That’s why I had Borivat reach out to you in the first place!”

               High Priest Yorin nodded.  “And if we reach an agreement, we will make every effort to see that he is brought back to Merolate alive and well.  But whether he survives or not, part of our agreement will be that you, Kiluron, will be Prime.”

               “I – “ Kiluron hesitated.  “I need to consult with my advisors.  Would you give me a moment?”

               He barely saw Yorin’s gracious nod of assent before he was pulling Doil and Borivat to the side of the chamber.  Pitching his voice low, though he still felt like he was probably speaking to loudly, he addressed them both.  “I – I don’t know what to say to that demand.  The others I can understand, but this?  Forcing Prime Wezzix out?”  He didn’t acknowledge that there was a good chance he might not even still be alive.  “It doesn’t seem right.  Is it even legal?”

               Doil glanced at Borivat, who sighed.  “Technically?  I think so.  There’s certainly no case law or precedent upon which to base something like this; we’ve never even had an acting-Prime before.  But the charter that created the Union gives the Prime almost complete authority, short of making substantive changes to the charter.  You could not, for instance, change the charter so that the position of Prime is passed down through your lineage, nor could you choose a sub-Prime from the same province as you.  But it also says that the position of acting-Prime should be assumed to have all of the powers commensurate to being Prime, which means that the acting-Prime is, in effect, the Prime.”  He paused, hesitating.  “So you could, in effect, declare yourself Prime, and have the power to strip Prime Wezzix of his title.  However, he would have equal authority to strip you of your title, under the eyes of the law.  It’s a flaw in the charter that no one foresaw, I think.  In this case, Prime Wezzix would likely agree to honor your agreement and step down, but it would set a terrible precedent.  I fear for what mischief could occur in the future if we pursue such a course.”

               “Well, I’m a little more concerned with what’s happening right now,” Kiluron grumbled.  “It just doesn’t seem right.  How can I bargain away Prime Wezzix’s position for him?  And why is this such a major point for them?”

               Borivat glanced at Doil, and then looked down at his hands.  “I believe that High Priest Yorin sees you as being more amenable towards the Isle than your predecessors.  Remember, relations between us and the Isle of Blood fell to a low ebb after the incident with Esaphatulenius, and Prime Wezzix was not inclined to improve them.  Your record thus far suggests that you might reverse that course.”

               “I have a record?” Kiluron mumbled, more to himself than to Borivat.  He sighed.  “So what do I do?”

               “I can only offer advice.  I cannot make the decision for you,” Borivat observed.  “Under other circumstances, my advice would be to deem their demands unacceptable, and hope that they might come back with a more reasonable offer eventually.”

               “We hardly have time for that,” Kiluron protested.

               “I know,” Borivat soothed.  “But that places us in a poor position.  And this is a decision that only you can make.”  He hesitated.  “Though I cannot speak formally for Prime Wezzix, I do know that he would not have put you in this position if he did not trust you to do what was best for Merolate.  I think he will abide by whatever agreement you choose to make.”

               Kiluron took a deep breath, wishing that it came in more steadily, instead of trembling as it went into his lungs.  “Alright.  I’ll see what I can make of this.”  Somehow, he brought himself back to the conference table, and faced High Priest Yorin again.

               “An exchange of scholars sounds like a great idea,” Kiluron said, doing his best to meet High Priest Yorin’s eyes and keep his courage from flagging.  He had to succeed here, even if he hated what it might force him to do.  There was no other choice he could think of; it was the choice he had made when he had resolved to have Borivat travel to the Isle and contact the Blood Priests, and he was still convinced that it was the only way to give Merolate a chance of standing against the Guardian.  “Instead of fully opened borders between the Isle and Merolate, I’ll authorize construction and manning of a Blood Temple in each province, for which Merolate will provide half of the funds and resources necessary for construction and maintenance.”

               Somehow, this seemed to please High Priest Yorin more than outright acceptance of his own terms would have.  “I find this acceptable,” he said.  “And what of you, acting-Prime Kiluron?  Will you fulfill my final term?  Will you assert your claim to the throne of Merolate?”

               Meeting Yorin’s eyes, Kiluron took a deep breath.  “In return for a mission to rescue Wezzix from Heart City, training and resources to help Merolate’s forces fight the Guardian, and a combined military operation to defeat the Guardian permanently, I will see that Prime Wezzix retires and that I am made permanent Prime of the Merolate Union.”

               “And you shall have that aid,” High Priest Yorin promised.  “I will see to it personally.”

               Sitting back in his chair, Kiluron let Doil and Borivat take the lead in determining the specifics of what was to come.  A strike force of Blood Priests and Vere’s best guardsmen would be dispatched within two days to Heart City to provide reconnaissance and attempt to rescue Prime Wezzix.  Though Kiluron tried to pay attention, he found it difficult to do so.  Making a decision and successfully negotiating with High Priest Yorin should have alleviated some of his concerns, but instead he found himself even more anxious than he’d been before.  As much as he tried to tell himself that the decision was made and he shouldn’t keep agonizing over it, he kept feeling that somehow, he had made a mistake.

               Carefully, Vere placed a period after the last statement in his journal, and then closed the booklet, tucking it beneath his armor.  The journal was part personal reminisces and thoughts, and part official documentation, but all of it was written in verse.  It served as a kind of personal code, built on vague literary references and allusions with no small amount of poetic license.  Together, it made it so that, while the words were written out plainly enough, no one but Vere would ever be able to agree upon exactly what it meant, even if someone were to steal it from him or his corpse.  After all, when had any two scholars in history been able to agree upon what even a single line of a poem was really supposed to mean?

               Squirming across the ground towards the coleader of the mission, a Blood Priest named Omthon, Vere barely even disturbed the tall grasses.  He wasn’t sure what good his physical stealth did were the Guardian was concerned, with them being right outside Heart City, but he wasn’t aware of anyone being killed by being too cautious.  At least Omthon knew to defer to him in matters of tactics and leadership.  Vere had been quite insistent upon that point.  “You’re sure that this is the best time to attack?” Vere asked.  “I would normally wait for darkness.”

               “Quite certain,” Priest Omthon replied.  With his long hair and pinched face, he didn’t have the look of a warrior, but Vere had been assured the man was the best magical fighter on the Isle.  “Dusk and dawn are the times of greatest natural balance, which means that demons and other opthamological entities are at their weakest during those times.”

               “Still makes me twitch a bit, all this light about,” Vere muttered.  He glanced back over the rest of his force.  There were three other Blood Priests, recognizable only from their black swords; they had left behind their distinctive red robes in favor of more practical, camouflaged clothing.  He also had ten of his own elite guardsmen.  Fifteen men in all, which was as many as they dared take if they wanted to stand a chance of maintaining their stealth.  Vere could only hope that the enchantments that the Blood Priests had supposedly added to the guardsmen’s weapons and armor would allow them to stand their ground against whatever supernal creatures lurked in the ruined city below them.

               With hand signals, Vere directed their small force to advance, slinking into the city.  Once past the main perimeter, they darted from the concealment of one ghostly building to the next.  Omthon had done something earlier with their blood to conceal them from the Guardian’s sense of the city, so that they would not be detected magically.  It had made the men uncomfortable, and not just from the cuts that had been inflicted on their upper arms, but the way Vere saw it, a tactical advantage was a tactical advantage, even if it did seem superstitious.  It could involve making blood sacrifices before a virgin moon for all Vere cared, so long as it kept him and his men alive.  Yet even with that protection, they still had to sneak.  For all that the Guardian had brought disaster to the land, there were always those who thrived on such chaos, and observation of the city had shown that there were perhaps as many as a hundred people who had come to the Guardian’s new domain.

               They moved in nearly total silence, using hand signals to communicate when necessary.  The Blood Priests didn’t know all of the gestures the guardsmen used, but Vere had made sure they memorized the important ones before reaching Heart City, and mostly they could pay attention and follow with what the others did.  Whether as a result of their precautions, or because the Guardian was secure in its magical sense of the city, or because its mortal followers were negligent, Vere’s unit encountered no one, and set off no alarms, as they moved deeper into the city.

               It was strange to see the city with actual buildings, albeit possessed of varying degrees of substance and definition.  They towered up and made the streets feel darker and narrower, and navigation more complicated.  While it offered more places for Vere and his men to hide, it also offered more places for enemies to conceal themselves either to observe or to attack, making Vere nervous.  The jarring proportions of the buildings, which all seemed just a little too large, gave the city an even more alien feel, and it didn’t need the extra help, with the ghostly grey-green mist that swirled around everything and actually appeared to form the substance of the city’s new buildings.  Fighting a shiver, Vere maintained an erratic path that consistently brought them closer to the Gältrok’nör.  According to Yorin, if Wezzix still lived he would be within the Gältrok’nör, which was where the Guardian was centered.

               Instead of the usual odd, crater-like formation that had previously marked the Gältrok’nör, Vere and his team soon confronted a palatial edifice.  Like the other buildings in the city, this one seemed to be somewhat ghostly, but it was substantial enough when Vere prodded experimentally at a wall, and it seemed more defined and solid than the buildings further from the center of the city’s circular layout.  There would be no pushing right through the walls, then; Vere had entertained some notion that if they looked so ghostly, he and his team should have been able to simply walk right through to the crater entrance within, but it seemed a door would be required.  Or a window – Vere was rarely picky about such matters.  He wondered if ghostly glass would shatter the same as regular glass.

               Avoiding the front of the building, Vere led his unit in a perimeter sweep, keeping tightly to the shadows the cloaked the building’s foundation.  Here, unlike in the rest of the city, he could see a handful of humans standing guard in nearby buildings, keeping watch over the entrance.  Somehow, that was vaguely reassuring; it had felt too easy, without substantial risk of detection.  Plus, the guards were human, which meant they could bleed and die on Vere’s sword.  Despite Omthon’s assurances, he had les confidence in his steel’s utility against demons.

               Just when he had begun to think that there might be no choice but the main entrance, he came upon a small side door.  Unlike the other doors, this one appeared to have been intended for men of normal proportions, perhaps even slightly shorter than was usual.  After a moment’s hesitation, he had Slarma, one of his guardsmen, attempt to pick the lock.  There was a long, tense moment in which Vere wondered whether picking a ghost lock was even possible, and then the lock gave a gentle click and the door sort of faded to open.  Vere wasn’t certain how else to describe it; when Slarma pushed gently on the door after working the lock, it became less opaque, and simply transitioned from closed to opened.  Slarma jumped at this, regarding the door warily, but Vere just shrugged, and motioned his unit inside.  They had known what they would encounter here would defy everything in their life experiences; this was an innocuous enough aberration

               The part of Vere that read classical works of poetry and philosophy longed to hold a whispered conversation with Omthon about the hallway into which they passed.  It was long, and there was no evidence of where torches, lanterns, or candles would go, but there were peculiar half-cones dug out of the walls near their juncture with the ceiling.  Had those ports somehow emitted light, when this building had truly stood?  With the grandeur that was visible even in what seemed to be a servants corridor, a grandeur that was only somewhat diminished by the misty, ephemeral quality that the building now possessed, it was difficult to imagine the real Heart City.  It must surely have been a place to put Merolate, or any modern city, to shame.  What kind of people, or perhaps what kind of gods, had built a place like this, and what had happened to them?

               Instead, silence prevailed, and they passed down the corridor until they reached a branching.  Vere hesitated, until he heard voices coming from the right.  Drawing his sword, he motioned for the others in the unit to make ready, and then set off down the righthand passage.  A brighter light soon became visible, and the voices became more distinct.  Vere held up his hand, stopping the group, while he strained to listen.

               “…not what I expected.”  The voice was older, but sounded firm and reflective.  Not what Vere would have expected for someone who had joined up with a resurrected demon.

               “I don’t see what expectations have to do with anything.”  This voice was younger, and sounded almost whiney to Vere.  More in line with what he would have expected.  “The Guardian has returned, Heart City is restored.  The rebel nations of Lufilna are crumbling before its might, and soon will plead forgiveness from their true masters.  Didn’t you hear that Merolate’s Prime already came to beg the Guardian to forgive him for his arrogance?  The right order is being restored, and we are part of it.”

               There was a pause before the first voice spoke again.  “It just seems wrong to me.  Why should the people of an entire continent suffer for the arrogance and ignorance of their few rulers?  The typical farmer has no say in whether they are ruled from Merolate or from Heart City.  These are things that common men simply try to stay away from, and get along as best they can regardless of where the diktats come from.  Yet it is the common men who are bearing the worst toll from the Guardian’s punishment of the renegade states.  Doesn’t that bother you?  Farmers who would provide food for Heart City just as well as they provide food for their other cities are starving and dying, while those who do have power continue to reside in relative safety.”

               “It is a cost, yes.  But no cost is too great to return Heart City to its proper glory.”  The second voice paused.  “Besides, if it will assuage your strange conscience, I hear that the Gälmourein recently reaffirmed their allegiance to Heart City and the Guardian.  The vaunted safety of those in power will do little to turn their blades aside.”

               “Knives in the dark, plagues, war…it almost makes me wonder if we’ve chosen the wrong side,” the first voice mused softly.  “The Guardian was supposed to return the glory days of Heart City, bring Lufilna back from the depths of ignorance and darkness.  Yet it seems that we are as guilty as those against whom we prosecute this war.”

               “Careful, Edvon,” the second voice sneered.  “If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up like the cowards and fools who would rather wallow in their ignorance and indulgence than embrace the light of Heart City.”

               “I do not question the rightness of our cause,” Edvon protested.  “I just question our methods…”

               They continued talking, but Vere stopped listening.  He motioned to his men, and they began to advance again.  Soon, they could see a huge atrium surrounding the entrance to the Gältrok’nör.  Their passage emerged behind a high desk, and both guards were facing the opposite direction, so Vere and his team darted from the corridor and into the concealment behind the desks.  Peering out from around them, Vere surveyed the room.  As far as he could tell, there were only the two guards whom he had heard arguing, standing in a relaxed attitude near an opening in the floor that led to the Gältrok’nör, where real stonework fused with the demonic substance of the rest of the building.  Slipping his dagger from its sheath, Vere motioned to Slarma, and the two of the padded out from opposite sides of the long, high desk.

               Darting in, Vere clamped his hand over Edvon’s mouth in the same instant that he drew his dagger across the guard’s throat.  He held the man through his death throes, and then lowered him in silence to the floor.  The blood seemed to fuzz the substance of the floor, making it transition back into mist.  Slarma had done the same for the other guard, and then Vere gestured for the rest of the unit to join them.  Cleaning and sheathing his dagger, he led them down into the Gältrok’nör.

               Heading down the narrow, gloomy tunnel that lead into the Gältrok’nör, they found an odd mix of real stone and metal structures, and ghostly replacements where doors and other artifacts had decayed in the centuries since Heart City’s inhabitance.  There was nowhere to conceal themselves if they encountered anyone else, so now they increased their pace, rushing down the tunnel with weapons drawn, eyes active for signs of threat.  Omthon and the other Blood Priests had slashed open their own palms, and Vere assumed they were preparing their magics, should the need arise.  Together, they burst into a chamber with abstract statues and carvings – some glowing, some not – and a gleaming metal disc set into the floor.  A handful of men in voluminous white cloaks were crouched around the disc, and looked up as Vere and his unit arrived.  They sought to scramble to their feet and fight, but Vere’s men were on them in a wave, and slew them before they could raise an alarm.

               Three doors branched off from that chamber, and Omthon pointed towards the one on the left.  Vere nodded, hefted his sword, and jogged in the direction the priest had indicated, hearing the soft sounds of leather scuffing on stone as the others followed down the narrow stairway.  Soon, they reached a wide, low hall, with curved walls that flowed smoothly into the front and rear.  Panels depicted abstract scenes, but Vere’s attention was focused on the two figures who guarded the double doors at the far end.  They wore charcoal grey wrappings wound tight around every bit of their bodies, twin, thin swords were strapped across their backs, and Vere noted several knives at their hips.  Unlike the guards in the atrium above, these were alert, and besides, there was nowhere for Vere and his company to hide.

               Gesturing for his men to fan out, Vere watched as the two guards slipped the swords from the sheaths on their backs, and stretched their limbs.  If they had expressions, they were invisible behind the cloth wrappings over their faces.  It lent them an inhuman quality, and Vere glanced at Omthon.

               “Gälmourein,” Omthon whispered, in answer to the unspoken question.  “Trained killers.”

               Then the two Gälmourein flowed in to engage Vere’s unit, and there was no time for further elaboration.  As Vere readied himself to cross blades, he wondered why neither Gälmourein had sounded an alarm.  The fact that they had not was almost more concerning than it would have been if they had.

               Both Gälmourein seemed to move within a cloud of shadow that kept them at the center wherever they went, making it difficult to discern their movements.  Blades licked out like snake tongues, and Vere’s grip on his sword tightened as he saw two of his men die.  Then two more died, and he’d yet to hear a clash of blades.  The Gälmourein were making his elite strike force look like bumbling peasants pressed into service without training.  One of the shadows approached him, and he stopped worrying about his men and focused on defending himself.

               Staring into the mass of shadows that told him the vicinity of the Gälmourein, Vere understood the temptation to get lost in the swirling morass.  It made him think that if he stared just a little more intently, he would be able to make out the Gälmourein within, but he realized that was futile.  Instead, he watched the shifting shadows themselves.  When the shadow seemed to loom towards him, Vere brought his blade flashing across his body, deflecting the strike he guessed was coming.  He had the satisfaction of feeling and hearing his blade knock aside a thrust that had clearly not expected to encounter resistance.  Just as fast, Vere offered a riposte, bringing his blade back around into the shadows.  He felt it clash with another hidden blade, so he withdrew again, blocked a second attack, feinted for where he thought the head might be, and then lunged.  He felt his blade strike flesh, and heard a hiss of escaped breath.  The shadows faded and the Gälmourein he had killed fell even as Vere leapt towards the remaining Gälmourein.

               Before he could reach it, Omthon shoved one of Vere’s guards out of the way of the Gälmourein’s attack, and blocked it with his black sword.  Then he was beating against the Gälmourein, raining a hail of blows down in sharp staccato as the shadows began to fade, until the Gälmourein stumbled, and Omthon’s  final blow nearly cleaved the man’s head in two.  Kicking the body aside and lowering his sword, Omthon met Vere’s eyes.  They had lost five of their own men – one of the Blood Priests and four of Vere’s guardsmen – leaving just ten remaining.

               “Too many,” Vere remarked, staring at the double doors that led into the Gältrok’nör itself.  “We can’t afford to lose so many.”

               “If the Gälmourein are truly as capable as the legends suggest, we are fortunate to have done so well,” Omthon replied.  “We continue on?”

               Taking a deep breath, Vere nodded.  These men knew the risks they had agreed to when they had volunteered for this assignment.  They weren’t going to turn back, not while they still had a chance to succeed.  Keeping his sword at the ready, Vere cracked open the double doors, and slipped through into the chamber beyond.  His men followed closely behind him, and they fanned out to the side, moving in single file and clinging to the inner chamber’s shadowy edge.  The strange silence of the two Gälmourein they had overcome meant that for now, they still had the element of surprise, although Vere doubted it would last much longer.  Even if they got to Prime Wezzix, they would almost certainly have to fight their way free.

               The Gältrok’nör was massive, and it was where most of the men and women who had come to the Guardian’s call were gathered, about a hundred of them.  Fortunately, their attention was focused away from the double doors, towards the far end of the roughly ovular chamber, where the stone formed a kind of dais, and a dark figure appeared to be preaching to them.  No, the figure wasn’t dark – it seemed to be made of darkness.  The Guardian.  Fighting the urge to hold his breath, Vere inched further into the chamber, keeping pressed against the wall as he edged around the place.

               Just barely, he thought he could see Prime Wezzix, off to the Guadian’s left and set somewhat back from the dais from which the Guardian was addressing the audience.  He was held spreadeagled against the chamber’s stone wall by invisible bonds, and his eyes were closed.  Vere could not tell whether he was alive or dead from this distance.  He glanced back at his men, and hesitated.  If they committed to rescuing the Prime, and none of them got out, then their mission would have accomplished nothing.  Someone, at least, needed to leave now, and get back to Merolate with the information they had learned.  He signed to Slarma, who looked about to argue, but nodded in assent.  Tapping one of the Blood Priests on the arm, he gestured back the way they had come, and the pair slipped back through the double doors and disappeared.

               That left only eight of them to attempt to rescue Prime Wezzix.  Sharing a look with Omthon, Vere closed his eyes for a moment, and then kept going.  They would try to sneak around the edge of the chamber, and rescue Prime Wezzix.  Waiting was pointless; there was nowhere to hide when the people started to leave the chamber.  Their only chance was to hope that they would be too distracted by the Guardian itself to notice the small group of people who were not so enthralled, making their way towards the prisoner.

               There had perhaps been no greater of moment in tension in Vere’s life, at least none he could recall.  It took an effort of will just to make himself remember to breath as he moved a handspan at a time along the wall, with the rest of his unit moving just as slowly behind, like some kind of viscous caterpillar.  Though the Guardian appeared to be addressed the followers who had flocked to it, Vere could not hear it speaking.  Its form, which rejected close inspection, seemed unsettled, only vaguely humanoid.  As Vere drew abreast of some of the followers, and began to pass rows of them, he waited for the inevitable alarm as someone noticed them with their peripheral vision, but nothing happened, no one saw them.  It was like they were all in a trance, unable to turn their eyes away from the ghastly figure on the dais.  Whatever the reason, Vere was not inclined to question his good fortune too closely.  He began to move more quickly, though still cautiously, along the wall.

               Even as they reached where Prime Wezzix was secured against the wall, no alarm, no cry, no shout went up at their presence.  It was actually eerie, for all that it benefited them and their mission.  When the rest of his team was gathered beneath where Prime Wezzix hung, Vere gestured at Omthon, indicating the man should try to free Wezzix from whatever invisible bonds were keeping him against the wall.  In the meantime, Vere kept his attention outward, on the chamber’s spellbound occupants, searching for any sign that they had been noticed.  He noticed that his sword hilt had grown sweaty in his hand, and he wiped his palm on his shirt.  He couldn’t recall being this nervous since he had been a youth in training.

               It happened all at once at the very moment that Omthon cut through the first of Wezzix’s bonds with his black sword, which flared with dull, red fire for the task.  On the dais, the Guardian shifted to face them, its form morphing in their direction instead of actively turning.  When it did, the others in the chamber shuddered and blinked, moving their limbs and looking around slowly as if coming out of a mass hypnosis or trance.  The fastest to recover were those in the distinctive wrappings of the Gälmourein; they quickly spotted Vere and his team, and flowed forward with a fluidity that rivals the Guardian’s misty tendrils, which were already crawling towards Vere’s corner, extending from what passed for the Guardian’s outstretched hands like terribly stretched fingers made into tentacles.

               “Time to go,” Vere shouted, their silence no longer relevant.  “Is he down?”

               “Almost,” Omthon grunted.  The bonds holding Wezzix’s wrists to the wall were so high that he had to be lifted by two of the other men to reach them.  With a grunt, he stretched and severed the final one, and Wezzix dropped in a heap to the floor.  Omthon leapt down to join Vere, and two of Vere’s guardsmen checked on Wezzix.  He had a faint, fluttering pulse, and the men nodded.  Whether he would survive, they couldn’t know, but he was alive for now, and that meant they would try to get him out.  If any of them survived.

               Many of the people who had been enthralled by the Guardian still seemed dazed and confused, uncertain what to do in the face of this unexpected intrusion.  “We go through them!” Vere ordered.  “Right through the heart of the chamber, and then out.  As fast as we can.  Let’s move!”  Heeding his own advice, he began to advance, eyeing the swirling, searching mist warily and hoping that the Blood enchantments that had been applied to his armor would hold.  He thought that perhaps the crowd would slow the Gälmourein; there were only a dozen of them, but two had been enough to bring down five of his men; he could not risk a confrontation, especially not with the knowledge that the Guardian might have any kind of power to throw at them.

               Leading with his sword, Vere plunged through the mist, which swirled and tried to strike at him, but was rebuffed, and then into the crowd.  The crowd pulled lethargically away from him and his men as they formed a wedge, a human arrowhead driving inexorable through the chamber, swords and Blood Magic bristling outward like barbs.  For roughly half the chamber, Vere thought it would be enough.  The Gälmourein were struggling to push through the crowd, which was being compressed by his living wedge, and the Guardian seemed confused and uncertain at their resistance to its misty tentacles.  Even though it took two of his men to carry Wezzix, leaving only six fighting men, he thought they might actually make it out of the Gältrok’nör, and from there they would stand a fighting chance of getting free.

               Then the Guardian struck back.  The ground itself rumbled, tossing the crowd of dazed sycophants aside.  Vere’s team barely kept their feet, but their progress slowed, and now they were a clear target for the Gälmourein.  From the darkness of the ceiling, fire erupted, enormous whips of flame that lashed down at the small company.  One wrapped around a guardsman’s neck, and before any of them could cut through it, it had burned through his armor and decapitated him with a smell of burnt meat.  Vere felt a tongue of flame wrap around his sword arm, and yanked back; Omthon cut him free just as he felt his wrist begin to blister beneath his greave.  They shared a look, and then they were whirling away from each other to help the others.

               A Gälmourein wreathed in shadows confronted Vere, and Vere caught the man’s twin blades against his own, narrowly avoiding decapitation.  Then something invisible snapped around his ankle, yanking him backwards towards the dais.  From the ground, he saw another two of his men fall, and one of the Blood Priests.  The two who had been carrying Prime Wezzix had been forced to set the unconscious Prime down in favor of standing back to back, swords trying to keep back the Gälmourein who were surrounding them.  Then Vere flipped over onto his back, struggling to cut at the bond at his feet.  His sword, though it had been enchanted by the Blood Priests, seemed to have no effect on whatever was dragging him.

               Strong fingers wrapped around his burnt wrist, and he fought the urge to cry out as he looked up to find that Omthon had flung himself to catch him.  A bolt of ice from the Priest’s finger nearly took off Vere’s foot, but it also snapped whatever had been holding him, and Vere was able to lunge to his feet, sinking his sword into a Gälmourein who had been coming up on Omthon from behind.  When the man fell, Omthon saw the last of his guardsmen fall, and a Gälmourein blade plunged into Prime Wezzix’s chest.  Smoke and ash filled the whole chamber, and behind him from the dais Vere thought he could feel rather than hear the Guardian laughing.

               Taking a deep, steadying breath, Vere met Omthon’s eyes.  With a resigned look, Omthon nodded, and they pressed their backs together, facing outward.  To one side was the dais with the Guardian, to the other the double doors leading out of the nightmare.  If they could get that far, perhaps they would stand a chance.  It didn’t seem likely to happen, but for all their different backgrounds, they were both fighters by trade and by temperament.  They would fight for that slim possibility of survival.

               It was more a matter of holding their enemies – both mortal and magical – at bay than it was of inflicting any appreciable damage to the Guardian or its ranks.  Magic exploded behind him, and Vere knew that Omthon was carrying most of the weight between the two of them, but there was nothing Vere could do about that.  He might be a master swordsman, but that did not make him capable of deflecting a solid wall of fire as it attempted to collapse upon them, or the demonic hand of mist that sought to swat them like gnats, except that gnats tended to be smaller, more agile, and better able to escape the swatting hand than Vere felt at that moment.  Still, they were making progress closer to the exit.

               They made it to the double doors.  Vere narrowly knocked aside a Gälmourein’s thrust, backhanded his nearest opponent, and then dove through into the corridor beyond, rolling to his feet and taking off at a dead sprint, Omthon tumbling through just behind him in an explosion of fire, trailing streams of smoke and mist and blood.  Oddly, the Priest’s beard was flecked with snowflakes.  Together, they pounded up the steps towards the atrium.  Shadows and men boiled out of the other doors in the chamber with the metal disc a moment after Vere and Omthon passed through it, converging and flowing up after them as if burgeoned and pressed by the rising tidal force of those still behind straining to reach their prey.  Vere doubted he had ever run so fast for so long in his life, yet somehow his feet kept moving and his lungs kept pulling in more air to fuel his flight, Omthon laboring along beside him.

               Mist exploded around them, the building seeming to tremble and collapse in on itself and them as Vere and Omthon emerged into the atrium.  They barreled out of the main doors just before the main doors fused into the melting mass of the remaining of the building, the whole thing seeming to pull into a point behind them.  Perhaps that was why they had been able to escape at all – the Guardian’s power was distributed throughout the city in the substance of the reformed buildings and artifacts.  The thought couldn’t keep Vere’s attention; he was too focused on running.  There was a stitch in his side, his lungs burned, his calf had cramped twice, and his foot had cramped once, but he allowed none of that to slow him.  There was only one thought worth thinking, and that was to get out of Heart City with all possible speed.  He hoped that Slarma had made it clear by now.

               He did slow, however, when he noticed Omthon was flagging.  Not bothering with words of encouragement – there was no better encouragement than the monstrous forces pursuing them – Vere simply matched the man’s pace.  If it came to it, he would not sacrifice himself in a futile gesture, but he would stay and fight with this man, just as he had stayed and fought with Vere.  That was the way it would be.

               Somehow, they made it out of the city without being caught, and still they did not stop running.  They kept running, even when they could not see signs of pursuit any longer, and ran until they simply collapsed.  There was no way of knowing if the Guardian or its minions might still be following, but they had run as far as they could.  What happened would happen.  Vere and Omthon both lost consciousness beneath the gaze of that alien, grey-green sky.

               Maybe he should have been sitting at the conference table, but Kiluron couldn’t contemplate sitting in the same chair for another moment.  Instead, he stood with his back to the others assembled in the audience room, facing out an intricate window that overlooked the city.  As strange as it seemed, there were still people going about their business, despite the apparent apocalypse through which they were living.  Humans, he considered, were a surprisingly resilient group.  Yet somehow these people were relying on him to solve the problems that they could not and ensure that they would continue to be able to go about those lives.  He punched his fist into his palm and turned back to listen to the end of Slarma’s report.

               “I don’t know if anyone else got out,” Slarma admitted.  “Guardcaptain Vere ordered me and Brav – er, Blood Priest Bravinew – to get back here and tell you what we’d learned, while the rest stayed behind to try to rescue Prime Wezzix.”

               Borivat nodded.  “That’s alright.  Prime Wezzix was alive, then?”

               “I think so,” Slarma confirmed.  “I mean, I only saw him from a distance, but I don’t see why they would’ve had him trussed up like that still if he weren’t alive.”

               “Tell me again about the guards you fought, the Gälmourein,” High Priest Yorin instructed.

               Slarma swallowed.  “Most terrifying experience of my life, I can tell you.  I’ve never felt that outclassed with a sword, and I’ve dueled Guardcaptain Vere for training – not that I won, but still.  It was like trying to pin down a ghost.  Could barely even see their swords before they struck.”

               There was a pause, and Doil looked around, meeting each person’s eyes.  “If there are no further questions…?”  Doil addressed Slarma.  “Thank you, Guardsman.  You’re dismissed.”

               Slarma saluted, turned on his heel, and marched from the room, but he hesitated at the door, and looked back.  “Sirs, I just want to say.  If we’re going back there, I want to go with.  I still don’t like having to leave the others behind, even though I know it’s important.”

               Turning away from the window, Kiluron caught and held Slarma’s gaze.  “You have my word,” he swore.  “We’ll get our people back.”

               A weight seemed to lift from Slarma’s shoulders, and he saluted once more before departing.  Kiluron turned to the others in the chamber, and focused on High Priest Yorin.  “How do we stop this?  How do we banish this Guardian permanently?  Whatever it takes, we will find a way to do it.”

               “Fine words, Prime Kiluron,” High Priest Yorin remarked, sounding weary.  “But they mean little.  We will need something more substantive if we are to succeed in defeating the Guardian.”

               Kiluron grumbled.  “Fine.  You’re the expert on demons here.  How do we stop this thing, and destroy it?”

               “For most demons, their physical form can be contained within a circle drawn with blood.  After that, the demon’s physical form can be dispelled at will.”  High Priest Yorin shook his head.  “But the Guardian is not an ordinary demon.  It is like a dragon in the spiritual plane, a being higher even than humans, and has sentience.  What is more, from what your scout tells us, it inhabits all of Heart City.  The problems of drawing a circle of blood that large alone make such a solution unworkable.  We must settle for something less than fully banishing the Guardian, if we are to succeed.”

               Borivat considered.  “The city itself is most deserted.  Could we create a small circle around just the Gältrok’nör, to cut off the Guardian from much of its strength?”

               “It is possible,” High Priest Yorin agreed.  “Though that is still a far larger circle than I have ever seen attempted.  Better, I think, simply to contain the demon, rather than completely defeating it.  The Guardian slumbered for a thousand years; it could slumber again, with the right prompting.  If it is convinced that Heart City is safe and its domain secure, it should return to hibernation.”

               Doil cocked his head.  “What’s involved in that?”

               Yorin hesitated.  “I am not entirely certain,” he admitted.  “It would depend upon the instructions that the Guardian was originally given when it was summoned.  We might be able to identify what is required through study.”

               Kiluron brought his fist down on the table, startling the others.  “No.  That’s not good enough.”  He found himself breathing faster, although he hadn’t done anything much.  Mostly, he was just angry, and he knew that he should wait and calm down before he made decisions, but he was tired of waiting.  “Yorin, our agreement was that if I gave you the concessions you asked for, you would help us defeat the Guardian.  That’s what we’re going to do.  So I don’t care if it takes every Blood Priest on the Isle; you’re going to make a circle around that cursed city, and you’re going to banish the Guardian permanently.  My soldiers will protect the Priests long enough to make the circle.”

               Borivat frowned.  “I am not sure of this plan.  There is a great deal of risk, and our lines would be stretched terribly thin around Heart City.”

               “I know.”  Kiluron took a deep breath, and sought Doil’s eyes.  He got a tiny nod of support, and felt a flash of relief.  At least Doil was on his side.  “We’re going to do it anyway.”

               For a long moment, High Priest Yorin held Kiluron’s gaze, and then he bobbed his head.  “So be it.”

               It took longer than he would have liked for High Priest Yorin to gather the necessary Blood Priests – nearly every priest on the Isle – and make the necessary preparations for the circle of blood that would seal in, and ultimately banish, the Guardian, but then again, Kiluron found that these days almost everything took longer than he would have liked.  The only bright spot, such as it was, had come when Vere and Omthon had come stumbling and staggering back through the city gates, looking close to death.  Even the news that they brought of Prime Wezzix’s death couldn’t make Kiluron less glad to see that Vere had survived and returned to Merolate, nor could the fact that with their return came the certainty that only four people out of a force of fifteen had survived the ill-fated expedition on which he had sent them.  Those were emotions he would have to wrestle with later, Prime Wezzix’s death in particular seemed beyond his ability to process in the moment.  There was almost a smile on Kiluron’s face, grim and angry as it was, as he finally rode out towards Heart City at the head of a force of soldiers and Blood Priests such had not been seen since the Unification.

               That in and of itself had caused arguments, but he had denied them all.  He had been told in no uncertain terms that directly joining the expedition was too dangerous, an unacceptable risk to a Prime of Merolate, especially with no sub-Prime and no one else in clear line to take leadership of the Union if he fell.  They were probably right, and Borivat in particular had kept insisting upon it, but Kiluron had ignored them.  Doil had given up the argument quickly enough, apparently recognizing the look in Kiluron’s eyes.  Besides, Kiluron thought his own argument for why he should go was a good one.  If this effort failed, there probably wouldn’t be a Merolate in need of leadership; they would all end up under the domination of the Guardian.

               Yet he would have had an easier time convincing himself and others of that if he didn’t feel like such a placeholder.  Everyone looked to him for decisions, but it seemed more out of obligation to his title than it was out of respect for his opinion and decisions.  Sure, he had been preparing to be Prime for most of his life, but he wasn’t really the Prime.  He was just the sub-Prime who liked to chat with the soldiers and the farmers and avoid having to think too hard about matters of state.  In all of the doubts and reservations expressed about this expedition, Kiluron saw a clear judgement: the old guard was better, and you’ll never be as good as they were at running the Union.  It was evident too in the way that people seemed to defer to Borivat, and Borivat’s own assertiveness in meetings.  In theory, he was supposed to retire or at least step back for Doil, but Kiluron didn’t see that happening.  Though Doil didn’t seem offended, Kiluron prickled for him.

               In his heart, Kiluron acknowledged that everyone was probably just doing the best they could in a difficult situation, and that at the very least it was too early to tell how the dynamics would play out in the day-to-day running of Merolate after the Guardian threat was defeated.  If the Guardian threat was defeated, of course; half the time Kiluron couldn’t help assuming that they would prevail, and half the time he was convinced that he was destined to be the shortest-lived Prime in history.  Either way, he found it challenging to remember that he really was Prime.  It didn’t feel entirely real to him.

               Their force reached Heart City two days after leaving Merolate.  No opposition waited to meet them; the city stood in spectral, haunting grandeur before them as Vere, still sore and exhausted from his ordeal, coordinated the force as it moved to surround all of Heart City.  There were eighty Blood Priests, almost the entire population of the Isle of Blood, and they were supported by almost five hundred Merolate soldiers and guardsmen.  Even so, surrounding the city left them stretched dangerously thin.  True, the Guardian only had some one hundred mortals to deploy, but it had powers that could not be so easily accounted.  Vere had expressed hoping that the Guardian wouldn’t realize what was happening until it was nearly finished.

               A few guardsmen erected a tent for Kiluron, though he grumbled at them about being perfectly capable of setting up his own tent.  It was some relief when they withdrew, leaving him finally with just Doil for company, staring out into the darkness all around and listening to the sounds of soldiers slowly settling in for the night.  For a long time, he savored the companionable silence, and was glad that no one could see his expressions.

               “Do you think this will work?” he asked.

               Perhaps Doil frowned in the darkness.  It was a moment before he responded.  “I think that we have a good chance,” he replied.

               Kiluron kicked at the muddy ground, grimacing.  “Do you really?  Or are you just saying that?”

               “I mean that,” Doil insisted.  “It’s a good plan, as good as anything else we have.  It’s not like we can just leave the Guardian here, not when it’s clearly going to try to dominate Lufilna.”

               Kiluron scrubbed at his face.  “People are going to die tomorrow,” he whispered.  “People who are here because I told them to be, people who are trusting in me to fix this horrible sky.  People are counting on me to stop an apocalypse.”

               “It’s not technically an apocalypse,” Doil remarked.  “It’s more like a war for dominion over the continent…” he broke off at Kiluron’s sour look, only half visible.  “They’re here because they believe that Merolate is worth fighting for.  And that the Guardian is worth fighting against.”

               “Yes, but they’re my responsibility,” Kiluron insisted.  “Blood and balance, what am I thinking?  Nobody should be listening to me.  You should know that, of all people!  You know just how many mistakes I’ve made.  I’ve always had other people to cover for me before, but now?  It’s all on me, and it’s all going to go wrong, I just know it.”

               “I don’t know that, my lord.”  Doil caught Kiluron’s gaze by the glint of his eyes in the night.  “You’re making the best decisions you can with what we know.  If we weren’t making this stand, others would die.  Act or don’t act: one way or another this fight will come.  Isn’t it better to be active about it?  To make a choice to fight, rather than waiting for the fight to come to us?”  He hesitated.  “Besides, I think the fact that you’re this worried about it says a lot about the fact that you’re a good Prime.  You care about these people for themselves, and that matters.  They believe in you.”

               “That’s terrifying,” Kiluron whispered.  “What if they shouldn’t?”

               Hesitantly, Doil reached out and patted Kiluron’s shoulder.  “They should, my lord.”  He paused.  “We should try to sleep.  We’ll make our attack just before dawn, and it would be best to get what rest we can.”

               Kiluron nodded, and they both settled themselves down, though Kiluron doubted that either of them would be able to get much sleep.  They lay in the darkness for awhile.  “Thanks, Doil,” Kiluron murmured.  He still wouldn’t be able to sleep, and he still was profoundly worried about the morning, and he was still oddly angry, but despite all of that he felt a little more confident.  Maybe he could be Prime; he just had to survive tomorrow.

               When he thought it was getting closer enough to dawn, Kiluron groaned and climbed to his feet.  He wasn’t sure that he had slept at all, and if he had it had been fitful and brief.  Looking around at the soldiers taking his cue and starting to rise and begin making their preparations, Kiluron considered that he was hardly the only one, though plenty of soldiers were being prodded awake by their companions.  He smiled slightly at that; only soldiers would be able to sleep soundly on cold, muddy ground while waiting for a battle with a terrifying demon from centuries ago.  Doil sought out something for breakfast, but Kiluron went off looking for Vere.  Even if breakfast had been something other than cold oatcakes, he doubted he could have stomached anything.

               Vere had established a command post just far enough back from the city to have a good perspective on Merolate’s forces.  There were few people there; they couldn’t spare the people for a normal command structure.  As Kiluron approached, Vere snapped a salute, and gave a meaningful glance towards the east.

               “Almost dawn,” he remarked.  “According to out balanced friends, the Guardian should be weakest then – something about it being the most balanced part of the day.  Are we still proceeding with the plan?”

               “We are.”  Kiluron forced himself to say the words, rather than nodding.  It seemed the least he could do.  “Everyone’s ready?”

               Vere nodded, his eyes sweeping over the perimeter.  “Our forces are, at any rate.  I can’t exactly inspect the Blood Priests, but they tell me they’re ready.”

               Wandering in with his wrist pressed into his mouth to stifle a string of yawns, Doil nodded.  “I just spoke with a couple of them.  They’re ready.”

               “They’ve held up their end of the bargain thus far,” Kiluron acknowledged.  “Let’s hope they can succeed in what we’re attempting.”

               Vere hesitated.  “If they fail here…”

               Kiluron swallowed.  “We’ll hold here as long as we can.  It’s here or it’s nothing; we have to contain the Guardian here, or we’ll have already failed.”

               “Understood.”  Vere sighed.  “I just don’t like not having a contingency plan.  Makes me itch.”

               “You doing alright?” Kiluron asked.  “You just escaped this place.”

               A pained smile twisted Vere’s lips.  “I’ll be better when that bloody demon is dead.  Or whatever it is that happens to demons.”

               “Fair enough,” Kiluron said.

               In the east, a ray of sunlight, bright enough that it was almost a normal reddish color, speared over the horizon, causing Kiluron to raise a hand to his eyes and squint.  He licked his lips, and noticed Doil and Vere watching him expectantly.  “Let’s end this,” he declared.  Vere blew out a long horn note, and around the city men and priests advanced.  Kiluron only wished that he felt as confident as his words had sounded.

               For several long, tense moments, it seemed there would be no resistance.  The Guardian, or at least its mortal minions, had surely noticed the force surrounding the city, but they had made no moves to sally forth or disrupt their actions.  All around Heart City, the Blood Priests pressed blades into their own flesh and began to draw on the ground, wide arcs to connect to the arcs of the priests on either side.  It would take time, though; each Blood Priest had to walk a distance that would normally take a whole sunrise, without the blood loss involved in their actions.  Kiluron could see them hurrying, Merolate soldiers helping them along when they stumbled or slowed.  A few of the braver ones had even offered some of their own blood to supplement the Blood Priests’, but Kiluron had forbidden that; he needed the soldiers strong enough to defend the priests, not weakened by premature blood loss.

               Then, Heart City seemed to sigh.  The phantasmic buildings faded, becoming even less substantial and actually seeming to shrink, and diaphanous mist began to clog the streets, crawling its way towards the perimeter where the Blood Priests were painstakingly completing their circle of blood.

               “Blood and balance, it’s coming,” Vere whispered.  He shook himself, grabbed the horn again, and let out another blast.  All around the city, the soldiers grew tense.  Grips were adjusted on swords, tense comments were exchanged with companions, and eyes were fixed on the rapidly expanding pool of mist rushing towards them.  Kiluron hoped that they would be enough.

               When the first wisps of mist reached the perimeter the Merolate soldiers had formed, they swirled, as if confused, and then moved past the guards.  Kiluron held his breath, waiting.  These wisps were for now lethargic, moving much like regular mist, and though a few soldiers batted at them with their swords, nothing happened.  Then the main wall of mist approached, the forerunning wisps tightened up, and the battle began.

               Kiluron had never seen a true battle before, but he suspected this was not how they usually went.  For one thing, it was oddly quiet; without the clashing of metal against metal, the battle itself was audibly tame, and the mist lent what sounds there were – the grunting of straining men, the cries of the wounded and dying, the shouts as the lines sought to hold – a muffled quality.  The Guardian also seemed to now that its goal was the Blood Priests, not the soldiers, and often tried to bypass Merolate’s defenders, who had to strain just to keep its attention.  It was a strange thing, Kiluron suspected, to be straining to get the attention of a monstrous demon that would kill you if it could, but the soldiers did it.  They knew that their hope for survival was to give the Blood Priests the time they needed to complete the circle of blood to contain and banish the Guardian.

               Though their armor had been enchanted to ward against the Guardian’s attacks, and their swords had been likewise treated to allow them to effectively combat it, the soldiers were not invulnerable, and the Guardian had few obvious weaknesses.  Cut off a tendril and its tip would shrivel away and disappear, but there were always more to take its place.  Those tendrils sought out chinks in armor with terrible flexibility and precision, and this was not the kind of fighting for which the soldiers had been trained.  With each one who fell, Kiluron felt his frustration increase.  He should have been able to do something to help, something to prevent this disaster from happening.  But so far, the Blood Priests remained standing, slowly completing their task.

               But it was taking too long, and the soldiers were fighting a losing battle.  Not only did they have to keep themselves alive – they had to also keep the Blood Priests alive and unhampered.  Several had already stopped their circling to fend off Guardian attacks, Blood Magic sparking and spitting, eating away tendrils, but there were always more to replace those that were diverted or destroyed.  Soon, one priest fell, and then another.  That left gaps in the circle that other priests, having already completed their own portion, would have to find the strength and blood to fill.  The Guardian surged, seeming to grow stronger as it sensed its enemies’ desperation.  Watching from the common post, Kiluron cursed aloud, but there was little he could do to help.  He would have to trust that the men and priests below would complete their task, and he found it to be one of the hardest things he had ever done.  Better to be out there, fighting with a sword, than back watching from a distance as people he was supposed to lead died.

               “I’m going to go down and help them out,” Kiluron declared, putting his hand on his sword, but he hesitated when Vere glared at him.

               “You go down there, you’ll only distract them,” he said.  “They’ll hold.  Trust me.”

               Though Kiluron cracked his knuckled and felt like he was visibly straining, he heeded Vere’s advice and held his place.  The men knew he supported them.  Didn’t they?

               Another priest fell, and then another, but those who still stood had finished their portions and were moving to fill in the gaps, sometimes weaving, sometimes stumbling; the soldiers were too busy fighting the Guardian to help them.  Curiously, the odd warriors that Vere and Slarma had described had not made an appearance, for which Kiluron was grateful.  The Guardian was bad enough; he did not need to see those monsters ripping through his men, too.  As the circle of blood came closer and closer to completion, the Guardian’s mists seemed to grow more agitated and violent, lashing wildly about wherever they could reach.  Somehow, the Guardian knew that they were close to trapping it, and it seemed to fear it in a deep-seated, irrational way.  It was odd to think of the demon as having such human emotions, but it did not make Kiluron any more sympathetic to its plight.

               On the opposite side of the city, almost invisible from where Kiluron stood, the circle was finally completed.  There was no flare of light or other, dramatic rush of power to prove this, but all of the mist outside of the circle went limp and collapsed, as if a razor had instantly severed all of those tendrils from the Guardian itself.  Mist rushed and piled up against the perimeter, climbing higher and higher, but it found no escape.  At the circle of blood’s near point, Priest Omthon raised his black sword, churning with green fire, and plunged it into the circle.  The other, remaining priests followed suit, driving their swords into the circle of blood.  Now it flared to life, green fire racing all around it, a brighter and fiercer green than the sickly color that pervaded the Guardian’s mists.  Soon, the blood on the ground had been consumed, replaced entirely by green fire.  The mist began to glow with a light that spread from where it touched the perimeter, and it swirled wildly, as if trying to escape, to expunge that burning green light, but it could not.  The light flared blindingly bright, the mist exploded apart, and the fire faded away, leaving nothing but dust blowing on the wind and a dark, shiny black circle surrounding the ruined city, which was again nothing more than remnants.

               For a long time, Kiluron could only stare at the city.  “It worked,” he finally whispered.  The soldiers and priests were congratulating each other, making their way back towards the command post.  “It actually worked.”

               Above them, the sky had bled back to blue, and with a start, Kiluron realized that it was still early morning.  In the far west, there were even still a few stars visible, while in the east the sun, in all of its glorious yellow and golden splendor, was gleaming as it rose free of the horizon and began its hike across the heavens.

               A messenger hurried down the imposing stone corridor, clutching a letter which he in turns regarded as talisman and venomous serpent, from the way he held it out before him.  Turning a corner, he skidded to a stop before an imposing wooden door, panting slightly, just as Doil was about to open it.

               “Letter, my lord,” the messenger announced, thrusting it eagerly towards Doil.  “Ran it all the way from the docks.”  Indeed, the young man was puffing slightly, and his cheeks were flushed with exertion.

               Suppressing his flinch at being referred to as a lord, although as advisor to the Prime he was now one of the most powerful people in Merolate, Doil accepted the letter, which was sealed with the symbol of the Isle of Blood.  “Thanks, Alfrin,” he said.  The messenger beamed, and then scurried off again.  Adding the letter to his stack of papers and books, Doil pulled open the door and entered the chamber.

               For the first time that Doil could remember, Kiluron was already sitting at the table.  He had a plate of food in front of him, but he seemed hardly to have touched it.  Instead, he was focused on a sheet of paper to his right, which displayed signs of having been handled repeatedly and without much regard.  As he approached the new Prime, Doil suppressed a sigh.  “Letter for you, my lord.  From the Isle of Blood.”

               “Thanks, Doil.”  Kiluron took the letter absently in his left hand without looking up from the paper beside him.  He made no move to open the letter.  “Is this how it’s always going to be?” he asked, still without looking at Doil.

               Taking the chair next to Kiluron, Doil helped himself to a bit of breakfast.  “In my studies of military strategy, I found that most generals fell into one of two schools of thought.  There were those who saw their men mostly as tools, to be well-treated and maintained so that they would perform well when you demanded it, but not individuals in whom to become personally invested.  They thought this for different reasons – the dangers of getting attached, worries of favoritism, preserving the chain of command – but they all came to the same conclusion.  They were often some of the greatest strategic geniuses of history.”

               “So you’re saying I need to let go,” Kiluron snapped.  “Just like everyone else is.”

               “The other school of thought,” Doil continued, without regard to the interruption, “held that a personal connection with those being led was helpful, even necessary.  These were generals who would take the field with their men, sleep in the same tents as the men, eat the same food as the men.  They were not always the greatest tacticians or strategists, but their forces tended to exhibit something that is harder to quantify and pin down to describe.  Their men seem to have fought better, harder, more cohesively than those in forces led by the other kind of leader.”

               Kiluron groaned.  “But how?  These men are dead because of me.”  He stabbed his finger at the list beside him, although Doil knew he had long since memorized every name upon it.  Considering the enemy they had faced, he thought it was a remarkably short list, and Vere had said something similar, but Kiluron had just shouted at them both to leave him alone.  “I see their names, their faces, every time I close my eyes,” Kiluron whispered.  “Is this how it’s always going to be?  Whatever decisions I make, people will die.  I can’t do this.”

               Hesitating, Doil tried to think of something to say.  The actual meeting should have been starting soon, but Borivat was late.  He’d been late frequently, in recent days; Doil suspected he was struggling with Prime Wezzix’s death, but he couldn’t think of what to say or do to help the older man.  Borivat was supposed to be his teacher, not the other way around.  But Kiluron – perhaps Kiluron he could help.  “There are also a lot of people who are only alive because of the decisions you’ve made.”

               “I should have been able to save more,” Kiluron insisted.

               “My lord…” Doil hesitated.  “There is nothing you can do for those who have died.  You have a different responsibility, a perhaps more difficult responsibility.  You’re responsible for those who still live.  You feel responsible for those deaths?  Do not let them have been in vain.  Be the Prime they would have wanted to fight for.”

               “Bah.  I know what you’re trying to do.”  Still, Kiluron did raise his head and pick up the letter Doil had handed to him, slitting it open with his knife.  “I guess we should see what High Priest Yorin is going to demand of me next.”

               Doil read the letter after him, and nodded.  High Priest Yorin intended to hold Kiluron to his agreement, but the Isle of Blood had suffered losses in the battle, too.  Fewer than had Merolate, but they had fewer people to lose, and Blood Priests took years to train.  He proposed a delay in the construction of temples within Merolate, and requested the scholars be sent mostly to the Isle for study, rather than Priests coming to Merolate, until they could rebuild their numbers sufficiently to better sustain the Isle.  It seemed reasonable, and Doil found himself nodding.

               “That bastard,” Kiluron whispered, and Doil looked at him in surprise.

               “This seems very reasonable to me,” Doil observed.

               Kiluron fumbled for words.  “He…he acts like we lost nothing, like all of the cost of this was one them!  While our people were dying to protect his priests!”

               Doil suppressed a sigh.  “At least the substance of the letter is mostly favorable, although I am concerned about the exchange of scholars being only one way initially.  Perhaps we ought to push back a bit on that; we did agree to an exchange, after all, not a transfer.”  He hesitated.  “And I can include language reinforcing our own sacrifices in the alliance against the Guardian, if you wish.”

               “I – that would be good.”  Kiluron scrubbed at his face and sighed.  “Blood and balance, I wish this weren’t so hard.  What would I do without you, Doil?”  A faint smirk played on Doil’s face, and Kiluron must have noticed it, because he hastily added “don’t answer that.”

               “As you wish, my lord.”  Doil glanced at the rest of the papers he had brought in.  “Would you like to go over the rest of the agenda?”

               Nodding, Kiluron snatched a copy of the referenced agenda.  “Might as well get it over with.  What else do we have?”

               “Reports from the other provinces are coming in,” Doil answered, handing over the stack of reports, along with a summary page he had written for each one.  “The governors report that they are still struggling with food supplies for the refugee populations, especially in the larger cities, but people are slowly returning to their farms.  The sicknesses seemed to disappear with the Guardian, although people who had already caught the disease still had to endure its course.  A few places in Tirate are reporting that the already have a new crop planted, and that the seedlings seem to be growing strong and free of any blight or rot or whatever disease it was that devastated the first planting.  Merolate has been distributing seeds from the emergency seed banks to help farmers replant; we’ll have to make sure those get replenished with the harvest in the fall.”

               “All good news,” Kiluron observed.  “I assume there’s some bad news, too?”

               “The governors would like to know when the official ceremony to make you Prime will be,” Doil replied.  “We’ll want to schedule that soon, perhaps once the country has had a bit more time to recover from the trials of the Guardian episode.”

               Kiluron blew out a breath.  “Really?  We’re going to have a party?”

               Seeing that Kiluron was again teetering, Doil hastily elaborated.  “Investing you as Prime in an official ceremony is an important function,” he explained.  “It allows the governors and other members of Merolate’s leadership to interact with you, and it reinforces the idea of Merolate as a nation, so that the provinces don’t start thinking that they might be better off splitting away from Merolate and going their own way.  We can cut back on the usual amount of celebration, I think, in light of recent events.”

               “Alright, fine.  I’ll demur to your judgement.”  Kiluron nodded.  “Keep going.  At least this way I can feel like maybe I’m doing something.”

               With a small smile, which he his behind a large book, Doil nodded and continued going through the agenda.  Yes, Kiluron would make a good Prime.  Doil just hoped he would be strong enough to help him when he needed it.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E12: Old Blood, Part Two, and of the whole first season! Thank you so much for reading and following along this past year. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. If you haven’t already read the other episodes, you can find the rest of season one here. Kiluron and Doil will return for a second season of Blood Magic, starting January 31st, 2021.

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