The forests just outside of the city of Merolate represented that strange, intermediate stage between a forest and a jungle.  The trees were deciduous and decidedly young, with thick, cloying undergrowth, the result of the small trees not blocking enough sunlight from reaching the forest floor.  Perhaps, in a few centuries, they would become a temperate rainforest, but that was a long ways off.  For now, they were still the sort of woods that, for an enterprising pioneer, could be tamed.  Many did, too, as the readier farmland closer to the city on the alluvial plains was gobbled up by large, agricultural enterprises with dozens of farms all under one owner.

                Such pioneers had a peculiar relationship with the government of Merolate.  They were given the land to own provided they farmed more than they required for subsistence, and they were not required to pay most of the usual taxes imposed on the citizens of Merolate; their isolated nature made conventional taxes prohibitive.  Instead, each farm was treated almost as its own, sovereign entity, paying taxes in the form of a tariff on the farm goods they imported to the cities and villages.  In return for the lesser taxes, such pioneering farmers weren’t guaranteed the same protections in the event of invasion or attack that the villages and cities of Merolate were.

                Prime Weflering had started the pioneer program half a decade ago, and since that time, over a hundred families had dispersed into the forests to make a life for themselves.  Most returned to the city only once or twice a year to buy and sell goods.  Similar programs had been enacted in other cities, but none had attracted the same kind of interest as the Merolate program had.  There, the program had not only benefited the pioneers; entrepreneurs were already taking advantage of the opportunities they saw in the pioneer population to build rural roads, oases, and outposts for the farmers, or to build lumber mills where the trees the farmers felled could be processed for a small fee.

                Tragger had moved out with his wife, his son, and his three daughters in the early days of the pioneer program, establishing a homestead and a small farm.  With the help of his son, Tragger had felled the trees from the fields and used them to build the cabin and the barn.  Wrenching the stumps from the soil had been backbreaking work, but wrest them they did, and that year they planted their first crop in the fertile earth of their new home.  It had been a small crop, barely more than they needed to survive, but the next year had been better, and the following year better still.  Now, they had three fields of crops that they rotated each year.  Tragger’s son had married the daughter of another pioneer nearby, and they had built a cabin at the opposite end of the land from Tragger’s, which had already been added on to several times.  Soon, a new generation of pioneers was running about the homestead.

                Autumn brought rapidly cooling temperatures and nearly perpetual rain; not the fierce storms that swept across the land and were fortunately largely dissipated by the surrounding trees, but rather a long, monotonous, steady drizzle that turned the fields to veritable swamps and left a lingering, chilly dampness to the world that could not be dispelled by the brightest fire.  It was harvest time, and the pressure was considerable.  Tragger and his sons and grandsons had to pull in the harvest before the roots rotted and left the crop unusable.  They also had to hurry before the roads to and from the city became impassable.

                “Fire!” his son Sagger yelled.

                Tragger spun around.  There was no way there could be a fire, not in autumn.  If this was intended as a joke, he was not amused.  To his horror, however, he saw flames leaping up, licking across the walls and roof of the old log barn.

                “Fire!” Tragger shouted, dropping his scythe and running for the barn.  Surely the fire would not spread, with how wet everything was; even now the rain was falling in an incessant blanket of moisture.  He wasn’t about to take that chance, however.

                From a doorway outlined in flame, the blummoxes came stampeding forth, their shaggy beards wagging back and forth as their heads bobbed with ponderous motion.  As if the poor beasts of burden needed any more encouragement to flee the flames, Tragger saw his son stumbling forth from the smoke behind the blummoxes, cracking a whip.  The lead blummox had just reached the edge of the field when a dark shape detached itself from the rapidly accumulated smoke and steam, swooped down, and scooped it up in massive talons.  The blummox made a gentle lowing noise before it was carried above the hanging smoke ceiling.

                Tragger pulled up short, staring.  As he watched, another shadowy form speared down from the smog to snatch another blummox and disappeared back into the billowing clouds.  Tragger cursed. 
“Leave them!” Tragger yelled at his son.  “Get inside the house!  Get everyone inside!”

                It hurt to leave the blummoxes, but they had no choice.  With the barn in flames, there was nowhere inside to protect them, and Tragger’s first priority was to get his family to safety.  Blummoxes could be replaced.  He just hoped that the fire wouldn’t spread to the crops.

                “Is everyone here?” Tragger asked, when it seemed everyone was crowded into the main room of the cabin, which had once been the whole cabin.

                “I think so,” his wife said, looking around and trying to get a headcount.  “What happened?  I saw the fire, and Sagger said something about flying monsters…”

                “I don’t know what happened,” Tragger said.  “Flying monsters is right – they’ve probably taken all of our blummoxes.  Somehow the barn caught fire.  I just hope that it doesn’t spread to the crops.”

                “In the middle of autumn?” Mrs. Tragger asked.

                “Well, I wouldn’t have thought the barn could catch fire in the middle of autumn, either, but it did,” Tragger said wearily.

                “Do you think the monsters could have done it?” Mrs. Tragger mused.

                “I refuse to believe,” Tragger said, “that we’ve been attacked by dragons.”

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                “My lord,” the messenger reported, bowing to Prime Weflering, “I have been receiving some troubling reports.  Many of the homesteads established under your pioneer program are reporting attacks by winged beasts that set fire to buildings and steal livestock.  The crops are apparently decimated; many of the reports indicate that the farmers worry they may not have enough to make it through the winter.”

                “How many is many?” Prime Weflering asked.

                “More than half of the pioneers, my lord,” the messenger answered.

                “Winged beasts, you say?  Can you be more specific?” the Prime inquired.

                “Most of the reports are very vague.  Apparently a large, shadowy, winged beast, perhaps several of them, will dive down from the smoke clouds produced by the fire, snatch up livestock, and disappear back above the smoke,” the messenger explained.

                “That’s not much to go on,” Prime Weflering said.  “Borivat, any insight?”

                “I’m afraid not, sire,” Borivat said.  “There are myths of wyverns, but even if true, they are not purported to be the sort to attack a homestead.”

                “It must be some beast, though,” Prime Weflering mused.  “Search the library.  See if you can find any reference that would match the description given by the messenger.”

                “Yes sire,” Borivat bowed.

                Prime Weflering turned to the messenger.  “Thank you.  I know that the pioneer settlements are not entitled to defense as part of the contract, but if these reports are even half true, this is a threat that could well pose a danger to the villages and towns, perhaps even the cities.  We will have to get to the root of this problem.  You may return to your post.”

                The messenger bowed.  “Yes my lord.”

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                The library in Merolate was not just the city library; it was the whole kingdom’s library.  The building was relatively nondescript; most of its immense size was underground – as a result, the floor numbers were reversed, so that the first floor was actually the first floor you reached going down from the ground floor, and so on and so forth.  It housed all manner of records for the kingdom, in addition to an ever-growing collection of texts on all variety of subjects.  Borivat and Doil, having presenting their writ of authority at the security checkpoint, were now standing on the first floor, surveying the apparently endless shelves of books and tomes and scrolls of all shapes and sizes.

                “Where do we start?” Doil asked.  “’Winged beasts that eat livestock’ isn’t much to go on.”

                “The zoology section seems a good place to start,” Borivat said, striding off in that direction.

                Doil hurried behind him.  The zoology section was one of the larger sections; in addition to cataloguing every beast so far identified within the kingdom of Merolate and the oceans frequented by her vessels, it also held descriptions of beasts from beyond the kingdom, detailed studies of a great many of them, various reports, censuses, and other data and description that defied easy identification.  Facing the enormity of the task before them, Doil sighed heavily.  Borivat smiled at his expression and led them down an aisle.

                “Here we go,” Borivat said, stopping before several shelves of books in the same form.  “Volumes I through LXXX of Kerb’s Complete and Unabridged Collection of the World’s Beasts.”

                “Volumes I through LXXX?” Doil repeated.  He peered at the volumes, which appeared to each be at least five hundred pages long.  “Please tell me that they’re organized by something like ‘mode of locomotion’ or ‘beasts that prey on blummoxes.’”

                Borivat smiled.  “Alphabetical, I’m afraid, by scholarly designation.”

                Doil sighed and pulled down a volume at random, brushing dust from it in cloying clouds.  “Then I suppose we’d better get started.”

                Borvat pulled down the next volume and followed Doil to nearby table.  When each had accumulated a sizable stack of volumes, they seated themselves opposite each other, opened one up, and began to read.

                “Here’s something,” Doil said.  “A moa.  It’s a large bird…oh.  It’s extinct.  And it couldn’t fly.  And it ate plants.”

                “Sort of like what we’re looking for,” Borivat replied.  “How about this one – the roc.  It’s a large bird, described as being large enough to pick up and carry away an elephant.”

                “That does sound promising.  What’s an elephant?” Doil asked.

                “It’s kind of like a blummox that doesn’t have hair, has really big ears, and much longer tusks and trunk,” Borivat answered absently, peering at the description of the roc.  “According to this, the roc is only found on a small chain of islands off the coast of Hesterka.”

                “How would one have gotten here?” Doil asked.

                “I don’t know.  But I’m not convinced this is the answer,” Borivat said.  “The roc apparently is a lonesome creature.  Each one rules over its island alone, and only ventures abroad or interacts with others of its species to mate, after which the female roc will kill the male, and return to the male’s island to lay the fertilized egg, before returning to her own island.”

                “Lovely marital practices,” Doil observed.

                “Quite,” Borivat agreed.  “But you see the problem, of course.  Many of the farmers’ descriptions included multiple of the attacking beasts.  I can’t imagine rocs hunting together – they’d tear each other to shreds long before they wreaked any havoc on anything else.”

                “Then I guess we’ll need to keep looking,” Doil sighed.  After a time, he said, “This is a mergrort.  It’s described as being a predatory plant that can fly short distances.  How did a plant end up in a book of beasts?”

                “Apparently the author was confused by the movement,” Borivat observed.  “I don’t think we’re dealing with a mergrort, though.”

                “I don’t either,” Doil said.  “I just thought it was odd to find a plant in a book of beasts.”

                They lapsed into silence, each continuing to flip through the volumes.  Occasionally, they would find something that seemed promising, but it never quite fit, and they moved on as the sun went down and darkness fell, forcing them to light lanterns.  As the lanterns dimmed and began to burn out, Doil’s head slowly drooped, until he was laid across the page describing a nHordel, shoulders rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep.  Borivat smiled faintly, rose, and hurried quietly from the library, passing through the silent, sleeping castle, down the deserted streets of the city, until he reached the docks.

                Glancing around to make sure he wasn’t be observed, Borivat gingerly lowered himself into the little rowboat, took up the oars, and pushed away from the dock.  Cloaked in the darkness, he trusted that no one would see the tiny form of him and his boat cutting across the bay.  Ahead of him, the Isle of Blood was given away only by a dull, reddish glimmer.  It might have been firelight, but it seemed just slightly too dark a red to be simple firelight.  After a time, the little rowboat bumped into the rotten dock of the Isle of Blood.  Borivat tied the boat up, stowed the oars, took up his walking stick, and climbed out, onto the Isle of Blood.

                It was a rare night with no mist, so Borivat could see the red robed figure as soon as the gates of the temple began to open.

                “Tell me, Borivat, Advisor to the Prime of Merolate, what brings you to the sanctuary of the faith?” the red robed figure asked, as she approached.

                “Tell me,” Borivat said, leaning on his walking stick, “what do you make of beasts swooping from the sky to set fire to farms and carry away livestock, and an old man’s wound troubling him again?”

                The red robed figure’s eyes narrowed, and she frowned at Borivat.  “I think an old man is getting paranoid that the past has come back to haunt him,” she said icily.

                “Am I?” Borivat asked softly.  “I’m not so much older than you, Marie.  Or should I say, Priest Marinae?”

                The red robed figure might have colored in the darkness, but it was too dark to know for sure.  “The Isle of Blood is not responsible for the darkness that is now assailing the frontiers,” she said firmly.

                “I know this is not the work of a mortal creature.  Even the wyverns, should they have somehow come back, would not be capable of these effects.  The fire would be beyond their capability,” Borivat said.

                “I assure you that this is not the work of the faith,” Priest Marinae asserted.

                “Perhaps a renegade sect…” Borivat suggested.

                Priest Marinae shook her head.  “Why are you so desperate to place the blame on the faith?”

                “I’m not –“ Borivat began.

                “You are,” Priest Marinae interrupted him.  “What would you have us do?  Send our priests to the frontiers to defeat this unknown menace?  Priests who would be subject to execution if your prime learned of their efforts?  The Isle of Blood is not part of the kingdom of Merolate.  Even if your laws did not forbid the use of our abilities in your lands, we could well be regarded as a foreign force.  I’m not interested in being in a position for your prime to declare war on us.”

                “Marie…”Borivat implored.

                “No, Borivat,” Priest Marinae said firmly.  “I’m not changing my mind on this.  I’d help you if I could, but I have to consider the needs of the faith.”

                Borivat sighed.  “There’s nothing you can do?”

                “I guess I can try to identify the source of the menace,” Priest Marinae said reluctantly.  “But the prime must never find out where you got the information.  Come back tomorrow night, and I will hopefully have some answers for you.”

                “Thank you,” Borivat said.

                “Don’t thank me yet,” Priest Marinae said.  Her face softened.  “I’m sorry I can’t do more, Borivat, I truly am.”

                “I appreciate whatever you can do,” Borivat said.  “I’ve missed you, Marie.”

                The red robed figure hesitated.  “I’m sorry, Borivat.  This is what had to be.  You know the cost.  A life for a life.  I am fortunate to still be among the living.  And I do good work here.  Important work.”

                “You are a far better person than I,” Borivat said.  He bowed.  “I must be going.”

                “Of course,” Priest Marinae said quietly, looking down.  “I will see you tomorrow night?”

                “Yes.  My lady,” Borivat said.  Leaning on his walking stick and feeling suddenly very old and weary, he limped back to his rowboat, climbed in, settled himself, and began to slowly row himself back to the city.

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                Priest Marinae, once Marie, watched the sun rising across the bay, its brilliant rays painting the sky and the sea a variegated red.  Out there, it was pretty, but as it touched the black stones of the temple on the Isle of Blood, it took on a darker hue, like dried blood.  Marinae shuddered and hugged herself.  Superstitious sailors liked to decry a red sunrise as a bad omen.  After Borivat’s visit and the troubling news he had brought, she was prepared to give the superstition more credence than usual that morning.  The long-dormant feelings and thoughts stirred by her conversation with Borivat didn’t help her mental discipline.

                It had long been her custom to climb to the top of the temple’s central spire each morning to watch the sun rising; oftentimes, she would bring her breakfast and a book with her and spend an hour or more at her lofty perch.  Today, though, she hurried back inside the temple, seeking her quarters, before the sun had even fully cleared the edge of the world.  The duties of her position were not strenuous, but there was much that needed to be done by everyone for the small community of priests to be self-supporting.  Meals had to be prepared, buildings maintained, laundry done, clothes mended, and all the other small tasks that made up the necessities of a civilized existence.  With the addition of prayer, meditation, and study, the day of a priest was well-filled.

                The faith, at its heart, was about balance.  For every cause, there was an effect.  Blood for blood, life for life, death for death: these were the central tenets of the belief system that was the faith.  Each realm balanced on a single pinnacle, and if the balance began to tip too far in any direction, the consequences would be dire.  The priests of the faith considered it their solemn calling to maintain the balance of the physical, mental, and spiritual realms; doing so required a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the universe.  Creation required destruction, destruction required creation, for the balance to be maintained.  The magic they used was based on these principles, but it was not a product of the faith, the favor of some deity.  The faith did not believe in gods, nor in the supernatural.  There was only balance.

                Each day, the high priest on the Isle of Blood ascended to a room in the highest tower of the temple, at the center of which rested a globe balanced upon a point.  The high priest would infuse the globe with his own blood, and through his magic seek to discern imbalances in three realms.  It was these imbalances which the priests would then seek to correct through their prayer and meditation later in the day.  Mostly, the imbalances were minor, and easily corrected.  Occasionally, the efforts of the combined priesthood were required to right the wrong and smooth the aberration that had developed.  No one was certain what might occur if the balance was not restored.  The priests of the faith had, for all of living memory, been able to correct imbalances, and the world was to some extent naturally balancing, but even minor imbalances could bring disasters.

                Having finished her chores, Marinae turned to her prayer and meditation.  The high priest had asked her to address an imbalance in life and death; the destruction of so many crops and livestock on the frontier had led to too much death, without life being bestowed in return.  That the imbalance existed implied that whatever actors were behind the ravaging of the frontier were creating deaths that were not supposed to be.  Marinae drew her knife and gently slid the blade over the meat of her thigh, wincing slightly as the cold, sharp blade parted her skin.  Blood welled up immediately and began to trickle down, collecting in the bowl designed for the purpose.  Once there was enough to coat the inside of the bowl, Marinae lowered her leg and carefully bandaged the wound with clean cloths.  For her efforts in this matter, her blood was serving only as a catalyst, not as a source.

                Through the catalyst of her blood, Marinae was able to perceive the imbalances in the realms.  An imbalance in life or death was an imbalance in all the realms, as each living being was possessed of all three components.  Reaching out, Marinae found the points of balance and exerted her pressure upon them through the medium of her own blood.  Where she brought her influence to bear, seeds quickened in the soil, eggs were fertilized, and spores found verdant habitat, until at last the balance was corrected.  She smiled; bringing life to the imbalance of death was far preferable to bringing death to the imbalance of life.  Alas, her next task would not be so easy.

                Having corrected the imbalance, Marinae washed and dried the bowl, until the polished black stone was clean once more, before she pulled out her mirror.  The surface was no more reflective than the back of a teaspoon, and the mirror was bordered by a rim of the same polished black stone that made up the bowl.  A series of spikes embedded in the handle were the only ornamentation, though that was not their purpose.  Gingerly placing the mirror in her left hand, Marinae flexed her fingers around the handle, took a deep breath, and closed down her grip.  She suppressed a whimper as the spikes drove into her hand, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.  When she opened her eyes again, the surface of the mirror was swirling bright red.

                This time, her blood was the source of the magic, not just the catalyst.  By creating an imbalance through the shedding of blood, she was able to correct that imbalance through the use of magic.  The blood mirror worked by correcting the imbalance by opening a view pane to another place.  The farther away that place was, the greater the cost to the user of the blood mirror became.  Fortunately, the forests outside of Merolate weren’t prohibitively far afield for Marinae.  The imbalance created was based on the draining of life, not the actual amount of blood, so the effects were proportional; important for a priest of Marinae’s small stature.

                The swirling, bright red surface of the mirror shimmered in response to Marinae’s commands, and then cleared to reveal the forest where the attacks had been taking place.  The view was not just of the physical realm, however; with the sight granted by the blood mirror, Marinae could view the mental and spiritual realms of the place, too.  It was fortunate this was the case, for it was in the spiritual realm that she was able to discern something unusual.  Deformations in the substance of the spiritual realm, like the ruts in a dirt road, spun out from a central source in grasping tendrils creeping down from the Derboin Hills.  Looking closer, Marinae could make out that many of the paths terminated at farms which, in the physical realm, appeared clearly desolated.

                Marinae was tempted to search further, to try to determine the source of the spiritual deformations, which were almost certainly caused by the use of magic, but she could feel herself weakening.  Reluctantly, she released the mirror, setting it carefully on her nightstand, before wrapping her damaged hand with more clean cloths.  Her hands were trembling as she fumbled a knot into the bandages, and she suspected that she was noticeably paler.  Most of the priests were able to tell when they were reaching their limit, but she had always had difficulty perceiving her own flagging strength until after she terminated whatever she was doing.

                When Borivat arrived beneath the cover of the night’s misty darkness, Marinae was waiting for him by the dock.

                “Are you alright?” Borivat asked immediately.  “You look very pale.”

                Marinae shook her head.  “You know the price of magic, Borivat.  It cannot be circumvented.”

                “I’m sorry,” Borivat said.  “I should not have asked this of you.”

                “It is a price I was willing to pay,” Marinae assured him.  “I assume that you have made no further progress in your conventional research?”

                Borivat swallowed the argument he had been about to make and shook his head.  “Doil and I have hardly moved from the library.  There’s nothing so far in all of Kerb’s Complete and Unabridged Collection of the World’s Beasts.”

                “Nor are you likely to find anything,” Marinae said.  “My own investigations were distressingly fruitful.  There are disturbances all over the spiritual realm in that area, stemming from Heart City in the Durboin Hills.”

                “Heart City?” Borivat repeated.  “The place is a ruin, and quite deserted.”

                “No longer,” Marinae asserted.  “There is clear evidence of magic being used in Heart City.”

                “You swore this was not the work of your cursed faith!” Borivat hissed.

                “And I maintain that!” Marinae replied.  “One does not have to be of the faith to practice magic.”

                “But magic is your responsibility,” Borivat argued.

                “Our responsibility?  The responsibility of the faith is balance.  We use magic to accomplish that, yes, but magic as a whole is not our responsibility, nor are all of its practitioners,” Marinae said.

                Borivat exhaled loudly.  “Fine.  What are we supposed to do?”

                “I don’t know,” Marinae admitted.  “I couldn’t see enough to identify who or what the problem really is.”

                “So someone is going to have to go in there,” Borivat said.  “There is no one in the Prime’s forces with experience dealing with magic, except me, and I am far too old.”

                “No, Borivat,” Marinae answered the unasked question.

                Borivat exhaled forcefully again.  “Won’t you at least consider it?  I could make a case to the Prime to allow you to operate as an allied force within Merolate’s borders.  No one has the experience in both the use and understanding of magic that your priests do.”

                “The faith does not, and cannot, involve itself so directly in the affairs of the world.  It would upset the balance,” Marinae quoted.

                “Fine,” Borivat huffed.  He turned to go.

                “Borivat,” Marinae called softly.

                He hesitated and turned slightly.  “Yes?”

                “I’m sorry,” Marinae said, eyes downcast.

                “I’m sorry, too,” Borivat said softly.  “Marie…”  But he didn’t finish the statement.  Instead, he merely turned around and, climbing into his little rowboat, began the journey back to Merolate, leaving Marinae staring after him on the rotting docks of the Isle of Blood.

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                Sub-Prime Kiluron looked at Heart City from his perch aside one of the Durboin Hills.  It was not a pretty sight.  Heart City was a ruin, and had been for as long as recorded history.  In fact, it was more accurate to refer to the city as the remains of Heart City, rather than the ruins.  Once, clearly, it had been the seat of some great civilization, but who those people were, what they were like, or anything at all about them was long since lost to the eternally creeping fog of time.  According to Borivat, the only information on Heart City kept in the library was nothing but invented stories and myths; hardly something on which to base a reconnaissance mission into dangerous territory.

                Nestled in a sort of natural bowl formed of the Durboin Hills, which were the rugged remains of some ancient mountain range, Heart City appeared to be little more than a collection of strangely patterned stones, partially obscured by the tall grasses that covered the whole landscape.  The fact that there was anything left at all was a testament to the grandeur that had surely once been Heart City, but Kiluron wasn’t interested in the archeological curiosities of the place.  Travelers, even bandits and outlaws, avoided Heart City, leery as men are wont to be of that which they do not understand, and there were stories and myths of what lurked amidst the ruins, standing faithful guard over the remnants.  The source of the smoke he could now see rising from the heart of the ruins, then, must surely be the source of the magic.

                How Borivat had come to the conclusions he had, Kiluron hadn’t been able to discern.  Prime Weflering and Borivat had seemed to have some kind of understanding that the source would not be revealed, much to Kiluron’s frustration.  He had questioned the wisdom of this expedition, particularly his being on it, but the Prime had insisted.  It was the Sub-Prime’s duty and role to serve as the expeditionary leader of the kingdom.  He was the active hand of the current Prime.  A normal kingdom would never operate in such a way, recklessly risking the life of its heir, but Merolate wasn’t, strictly speaking, a kingdom, in that it wasn’t ruled by a single family.  The Prime selected a Sub-Prime from the populace to train and eventually elevate to the role of Prime.  Apparently, that made him dispensible.

                To Kiluron’s surprise, Doil had taken his side in the debate.  Normally strongly in support of tradition and duty, the training advisor had seemed oddly spooked at the prospect of seeking magic users in Heart City.  It was probably some book he had read, Kiluron decided; despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to get Doil to reveal any of what he was thinking on the whole ride from the castle to their present camp a little away from the bowl of hills that contained Heart City.

                “We’ll sneak in under cover of darkness,” Kiluron said, looking around at his men.  He’d brought a small team of four of his best scouts.  “We just want to gain an understanding of who is here and what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, nothing more.  We’re not here to make decisions about what to do about it, and we’re certainly not here to fight.  If anything goes wrong, don’t plan to fight.  No dramatic rescues.  If a fight breaks out, everyone gets out as quickly as possible, and ride like the wind for Merolate with whatever information we were able to gain.  Understood?  Any questions?”  Kiluron was proud of his instructions.  Perhaps the lessons in military leadership were finally starting to sink in.

                The scouts shook their heads and gave him thumbs up.  They were as ready as they were going to be.

                “Alright.  Get some rest,” Kiluron said.  “Doil, you’ll stay close to me for the mission.”

                The night was brighter than Kiluron would have liked.  Nights in the Durboin Hills were like that, with few clouds and a billion stars shedding their light, unfiltered, across the rugged grassland.  Remaining undetected would be difficult, even if whoever they were infiltrating had been foolish enough to not post sentries.  The starlight was enough that they could see their own shadows.  Almost, Kiluron considered calling off the infiltration until a darker night could be had, but that didn’t seem likely.  It was getting well towards winter now, and the stars only grew brighter with the colder months.

                Soon, Kiluron had lost sight of the other scouts.  They were going in three teams of two, entering from different sides to increase the odds that one of them would be able to get through and learn something of value, even if the other teams were detected.  He only knew where Doil was, creeping along just behind him, doing a decent job of staying silent, though it was evident he lacked training.  For that matter, Kiluron wasn’t moving nearly as silently as the scouts surely were.  If there was going to be a team that was discovered, it would probably be theirs.  It wasn’t a reassuring thought.

                They moved down the hill relatively quickly, slowing dramatically once they reached the bowl that cupped Heart City.  Kiluron had a knife ready in his hand, the metal blackened with soot to prevent any reflection.  He wore no armor.  Once inside the remains of the city, it became clear there was more still standing than it had seemed from above; that was good for cover, but it meant they would have to remain in the city longer, and get closer to their target before being able to learn anything.  From the edge, Kiluron could only guess at which direction would be the quickest way to the center of the city through the winding, maze-like streets.  To his paranoid eye, every wavering shadow cast by the tall grass was a man waiting around the corner to sound the alarm and end their lives.

                Moving so slowly it was painful, Kiluron and Doil made their way deeper into the city’s remains, winding around the outlines of once magnificent buildings and down the cracked and ragged remnants of paved roads as they sought the center.  Doil cast about himself constantly, as if worried that the city itself would attack them.  Recalling the stories and myths that kept even hardened outlaws from hiding in Heart City, Kiluron had to wonder if Doil’s wariness was well-founded.  Occasionally, they would come to an intersection, where they would have to make a decision and traverse it as quickly as possible.  Intersections were a death trap.

                The city had been laid out roughly in a wheel and spoke pattern, with the main roads being concentric circles expanding from the center of the city, connected by other major roads that ran directly from the center of the city to its outer edge.  There were countless minor roads between these, however, and Kiluron didn’t dare use the major roads; if the roads were being watched or patrolled, it would be the major roads.  Instead, they stuck to the side streets, wending their way as best they could.  That task had seemed simple enough when examining the city’s layout from the surrounding hills, but now in the midst of it, the task became far more daunting.  Kiluron could only hope they were actually making progress towards the city’s heart.

                Their only sign that they were approaching the center of the city was the steady shrinking of the blocks of side streets through which they were winding.  Doil noticed that many of the buildings nearer the center of the city had been much larger, based on their remains and the much smaller number of side streets.  Kiluron darted out from behind a wall to cross one of the concentric roads, Doil a step behind, and nearly collided with a man in dark clothing.  In the darkness, Kiluron saw the man’s eyes widen, his mouth opening to call an alarm as he brought his sword to bear.  Kiluron’s knife was faster than the man’s sword, but not his shout.  Swearing under his breath, Kiluron yanked the knife, now free of soot, from the man, and sprinted for the cover of the next set of side streets.

                Crouching in the cover of what must have once been a basement, Kiluron and Doil paused to catch their breath.  No other adversaries were apparent, but the shout of alarm was being taken up from other places now in response to the dead man’s call.  Kiluron hoped that the other teams had already gotten in and were on their way out.  A successful infiltration now that the camp was on alert was much less likely.  Still, they had no choice but to try.  Kiluron wondered who the Prime would choose to be the new Sub-Prime if he died.

                “Alright,” Kiluron hissed at Doil, “We’ve lost the advantage of surprise, and stealth is all but impossible now.  Our only hope is to be fast.  We’ll split up – that’ll improve the chances that one of us will get through.  I’ll go over this wall and head in – you got to the next spoke, that way, and head inward.  Move as fast as you can.  Understood?”

                Doil nodded, hoping he had it in him to run that much.

                “Go!” Kiluron hissed.  He vaulted over the wall and started sprinting.  Glancing back to make sure that Doil was on his way, he nearly missed a step, recovered, and ran right into a black mass of a person.  He tried to pull away, but something hard hit him on the head, and he knew no more.

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                When Kiluron came to, the first thing he became aware of was how desperately he wanted to rub his head.  The pain splitting his skull with white hot daggers was unbearable.  It made him want to wretch, which he did, painfully and drily into the gag.  He couldn’t rub his tender head, for his arms were bound.  As were his legs.  He wasn’t tied to anything in particular, but somehow the bindings on his arms and legs were contrived so that if he tried to loosen one, the other became tighter.  The taste of the gag was bitter in his mouth, and his nostrils were filled with the smells of sweat and hemp and smoke.  Fearing what he might see, Kiluron at last forced his eyes open.

                He was in a shelter, evidently erected from the remains of Heart City’s buildings and supplemented with imported materials.  Outside, he could hear men talking quietly, and there was lighting coming through the doorway that flickered with the uneven quality of firelight.  The inside of his improvised prison was bare, with a dirt floor, roughly stacked stone walls, and a roof of what appeared to be cloaks.  Another person was lying bound a little ways away, a person who seemed awfully small, and wore Kiluron’s personal sigil.  Doil.

                Struggling, wriggling like a worm, Kiluron managed to shift and roll and maneuver himself until he bumped into Doil, who rolled over abruptly, he eyes lighting at the sight of Kiluron.  Doil squirmed, and Kiluron wondered what he was doing, when abruptly the boy brought his hands up to his head and undid the gag.

                “About time you woke up,” Doil said quietly, setting to work on Kiluron’s bonds.  “I thought you were going to sleep until they actually decided what to do with us.”

                “Doil?  What’s going on?” Kiluron asked, as soon as Doil had removed his gag.

                “I’m freeing you,” Doil said.  “You were captured.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sneak in and break you out, so I turned myself in, gambling that they’d put me up with you.  I was right.  These guys really know their knots, which is fortunate.  A good knot is both easy to tie and easy to untie, if you know what you’re doing.  I read about these particular knots in a book.”

                Kiluron rubbed circulation back into his limbs.  “I see.  So how do we get out from here, master escape artist?”

                Doil hesitated.  “That’s where he comes in,” he said, hurrying over to the third form in the tent to untie his bonds.

                Kiluron stared.  He hadn’t noticed the third person before, but that wasn’t why he was staring.  He was staring because he recognized the man.  The red robes were gone, as was the big, black sword, although the empty scabbard of a sword still hung at his waist, but the man could only be Priest Herlglut.  He’d recognize that scowl anywhere, despite their relatively brief previous interaction.

                “What?” Priest Herlglut demanded, as soon as his gag was out and he had spat to clear his mouth of the taste.  “The faith doesn’t have so many priests that you’d expect to never run into the same ones now and again.  Oh, and Doil, this was a horrible idea.  Remind me to never let you talk me into your rescue ideas again.”  It was probably more words at once than Kiluron had heard the man say, despite that their last interaction had been in the middle of a negotiation.  Perhaps he was a nervous talker.

                Priest Herlglut glared at them for a second more.  “Well, don’t just stand there,” he growled.  “Somebody needs to make me bleed.”

                Finding some way to make Herlglut bleed proved unnecessary, as the manner soon presented itself when a large man with a naked sword ducked into the improvised prison.  If he was surprised by the prisoners’ relative freedom, he reacted quickly to it, perhaps helped by the fact that he had likely come to kill them, anyway.  The sword lashed out for Herlglut, whom the man evidently considered the most dangerous.  He was right.  Despite his bulk, the priest moved freakishly fast when he sidestepped the sword thrust, moved inside his attacker’s reach, and punched the man hard in the face, sending the man stumbling backwards, blood streaming from his nose, while Herlglut retreated to the rear of the little prison, now holding the man’s dagger, which he immediately sliced across his leg.

                Blood welled up, and Herlglut grinned.  Abruptly, the fire outside went out, plunging them into relative darkness.  As their assailant moved to attack again, a missile of ice the size of a finger coalesced in the air and speared through the sudden darkness to drive through the man’s brain.  He dropped instantly, and Herlglut, pausing only to pick up the man’s sword, strode out of the improvised prison.  Kiluron and Doil shared a glance, each took a deep breath, and then they followed the priest outside.

                After the impressive display with the ice missile, the battle taking place between Herlglut and his erstwhile captors was almost anticlimactically mundane.  To be sure, the man was displaying an astonishing mastery of swordsmanship, taking on five men at once and showing few signs of strain in doing so, but there were no further obvious displays of magic.  There was also no sign of winged, predatory beasts, which Kiluron found worrisome.  Something felt off about this whole situation.  For a start, what was a priest from the Isle of Blood doing here, and why was he helping them?  Shaking off the questions, Kiluron grabbed a sword from one of the men Herlglut had already dispatched and joined the priest in his fight.  Although not as skilled as Herlglut clearly was, Kiluron was a capable swordsman.  In moments, the remaining men had been dispatched.

                “Alright,” Kiluron said to Herlglut’s back, as the man dug out his own black sword from a pile of weapons sitting beneath a lean-to, “thank you for the rescue.  Now can you please explain what’s going on?”

                Priest Herlglut turned and sheathed his sword smoothly, treating Kiluron to his customary glare.  “You’re welcome,” he grunted, before walking off.

                “Wait!” Kiluron called.  “Where are you going?  Why are you here?  What’s going on?”

                Priest Herlglut didn’t turn.  “I’m going to put an end to this menace.  What’s going on is a few power hungry fools who don’t understand magic.  As for why I’m here, let’s just say it wasn’t my top choice, and I’m not here officially.”  He sounded almost embarrassed about the last part.

                Kiluron hurried after him, which finally caused the priest to stop and treat Kiluron to another glare.

                “It would really be better,” Herlglut growled, “if you let me take care of this.”

                Kiluron drew himself up.  “As the Sub-Prime of Merolate, I have a duty – “

                Herlglut cut him off.  “Bah.  Forget duty.  Don’t be a fool.  This matter is beyond you.”

                “Is that so?” Kiluron demanded.

                “Yes,” Herlglut said flatly.  “Or do you really believe that steel blade you’re planning to wave around will be effective in banishing demons?”

                Kiluron swallowed.  “Demons?”

                “Yes.  Demons,” Herlglut said.  “Reckless, foolish, ignorant magic users think demons are a great way to get around paying the price of magic.  They aren’t.”

                “I see,” Kiluron said, not seeing at all.

                “My lord,” Doil said, “Magic is all about balance.  First, there must be blood.  That is the price that a magic user must pay; the greater the blood, the greater the power.  However, blood can also be used as a catalyst for magic.  That’s what I suspect the priest did with the ice.  He balanced the heat of the fire with the cold of the ice.  To form the one, he had to destroy the other.”

                “So?” Kiluron asked.  “Where do demons come in?”

                “Demons can be summoned with only a minimal amount of blood power,” Herlglut relented.  “To those who don’t know better, the balance seems to be corrected through the deaths and destruction caused by the demon’s actions, but that isn’t so.  The balance is corrected, eventually, by the death of the summoner, which imbues the demon with a life force of its own and sets it free in the physical realm.”

                “Don’t bother with the details,” Doil said quickly, at Kiluron’s expression of confusion.  “The point is, both the demons and the summoners need to be destroyed.”

                “Then we should return at once to Merolate and gather a force to dispatch them,” Kiluron said.  “What happened to the other scouting teams?”

                “They’re dead,” Herlglut grunted.  “As will be whatever forces you might bring from Merolate.  You could kill the summoners, yes, though at great cost.  But you couldn’t kill the demons, and if the demons aren’t killed, then killing the summoners accomplishes little.”

                Herlglut turned and walked away. There was what looked almost like an artificial crater at the center of the little camp, which, Kiluron realized after a moment, was the center of the city.  The lip was slightly raised, so that Kiluron couldn’t tell from where he stood what was inside.  He watched as Herlglut mounted the lip, walking around the edge a ways, and then abruptly disappeared inside.

                Kiluron looked at Doil.  “How do you know all that stuff?”

                “Borivat’s tutoring is quite thorough,” Doil explained.

                “Hm.”  Kiluron stood thoughtfully for a moment, then started for the artificial crater.  “Come on.  We’re not letting Herlglut go in there alone.”

                Doil hesitated.  “My lord, are you sure this is a good idea?”

                Kiluron hefted his sword.  “No.  In fact, I’m quite sure this is a bad idea.  I thought this whole mission was a bad idea.  But here we are.  We can’t let Herlglut go do our work for us.  Besides, I’ve had bad ideas before, and those have always turned out alright in the end.”

                Doil reluctantly found a short sword and followed the Sub-Prime.  “I don’t think you’ve ever had an idea quite this bad, before,” he muttered.

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                The crater-like structure ceased to look like a crater as soon as they had mounted the lip.  A set of stairs, no more than stone slabs extending from the side of the wall, spiraled down into a perfectly cylindrical pit.  Doil suspected that at one point this structure had been inside whatever Heart City’s central building had been.  The bottom of the pit was also paved in stone, just as the walls were, and was mostly clear, except for a few containers of supplies tucked beneath the spiraling stairs.  Opposite the last stair, set into the wall of the pit, was a door.  From the large amounts of rusted iron visible, Kiluron suspected it had been originally all metal, with the holes formed by the passage of time now covered over with thick, wood planks.  Now, the door hung off of one hinge and groaned beneath its own weight.  Clearly, Herlglut wasn’t taking the subtle approach.

                There was a torch burning just inside the door.  Kiluron yanked it from its wall bracket as he walked past, noting that there were no signs of further struggle beyond that with the door.  Not knowing how well lit the interior might be, Kiluron wasn’t interested in being trapped in this ancient dungeon in the dark.  The doorway had opened onto a narrow stairway plunging quickly deeper into the earth.  It, like the pit above, was also paved neatly in stones, which became progressively less apparently aged the deeper they descending.  Every few feet, they passed additional torches, also lit, although the flickering light did little to alleviate the gloom and oppression that seemed to permeate the place.

                At length, Kiluron and Doil came to another door.  Much like the first, although less rusted, this one, too, showed signs of being forced open, although it wasn’t in as much disrepair as the outer door.  Still, there were no signs of any further struggle.  The door opened onto a larger chamber, although it was certainly not vast.  Statues and carvings lurked on apparently every surface of the chamber, which was circular, although none of the artistry showed figures; only shapes and abstract forms were featured.  At the center of the chamber was a metal disc, inexplicably still gleaming and polished, which was etched with a maze of lines, some connecting, others not.  The entire disc was outlined with what seemed to be some kind of writing.

                “Can you read it?” Kiluron asked, gesturing at the disc with his torch.  “Or anything in here?”

                Doil shook his head.  “Heart City’s language has never been translated.  It has no parallels with any known language.”

                There were three doors at the far side of the chamber, spaced a couple of paces apart in the circular wall.  These doors, too, were metal, and again, even less rusted than the previous door.  All of them were open, and none showed any signs of being forced.

                “Where do we go?” Kiluron asked.

                “I don’t know,” Doil answered softly, almost too softly to hear.  He cleared his throat.  “I don’t know,” he said, slightly louder.

                “That’s helpful.  What is this place?” Kiluron asked.

                “I don’t know,” Doil repeated.

                “Well, what do you know?” Kiluron demanded, exasperated.  “You’re supposed to know whatever information we need.”

                “I think we should leave this place,” Doil whispered.  He looked pale, and his eyes were constantly shifting about restlessly.

                “We can’t,” Kiluron said firmly.  “What’s gotten into you, Doil?  You’re not usually so easily spooked.”

                Doil just shook his head.

                Kiluron blew out a breath.  “Fine.  I’m just going to guess then.  We’ll take the rightmost door.”

                Kiluron started to walk towards it, but as he did, a blood curdling, inhuman shriek rippled from the leftmost door with such force that Kiluron stumbled backwards, and Doil clapped his hands to his ears, dropping his scavenged sword.

                When his ears had stopped ringing and his head had cleared, Kiluron faced the leftmost door and squared his shoulders.  “On second thought, let’s go this way,” he said, the false confidence in his voice belying the paleness of his features.

                Picking up the short sword with trembling hands, Doil followed Kiluron through the door.  Once again, they found themselves moving down a narrow stairway, descending deeper into whatever darkness awaited.  There were still torches, but to Kiluron and Doil, the light seemed to have taken on a darker quality, as if the torches were no longer capable of lighting the way as they had before.  Kiluron wondered suddenly if Priest Herlglut had been killed; there had been no sounds of combat, or any sounds at all, coming from ahead since that single, blood-curdling scream.

                The stairway eventually ended in a sort of wide, low hall.  The side walls were gently curved, and flowed into the rear and front walls with a smoothness beyond the capacity of modern architects and masons.  Each side wall was further divided into several panels, each of which contained a relief depicting a scene, although there was a distinct absence of human or animal forms in all of the renderings.  The ceiling was simple, consisting of a broad, low, continuous arch, the peak of which was only slightly higher than Kiluron’s head.  At the far end of the chamber was a set of double doors, which were closed.  Kiluron wondered what it implied for Herlglut that these were the first doors that were not still open following the priest’s passage.

                Cautiously, Kiluron approached the doors with Doil a few steps behind.  “Well, I guess we could see if they’re locked,” Kiluron said, hoping they would be.  He pushed on the door.

                To Kiluron’s and Doil’s disappointment, the double doors swung silently open onto the massive chamber beyond, and the reason for the previous silence became clear.  As soon as the doors opened, they were immersed in a barrage of sound: demons screeching, explosions going off, steel clashing, people yelling.  It was a cacophony of violent noise that was decidedly overwhelming.  Gripping his sword, Kiluron took a deep breath and charged into the chamber.  Doil muttered something under his breath and followed a second later.

                Passing through the doorway, Kiluron felt his skin tingle, as if being immersed in a thunderstorm, or perhaps several thunderstorms, and for the first time, he saw clearly the demons that had been reported.  The monsters were each thrice the length of a man from nose to tail, with powerful, taloned hind legs and vast, sweeping wings.  They were a strange fusion of reptile and bird, with scales intermixed with feathers.  One lay in a charred heap on the ground.  Three more were wheeling about a central figure, sometimes flying, sometimes on the ground.  Their screeches echoed as they were repeatedly repulsed by the figure they surrounded.  Herlglut.

                The priest held his black sword in one hand, while the other spat and flared with magic in ever shifting forms.  For an instant there was a gleaming shield, then a bolt of lightning leapt from the palm, only to be replaced by a flaming missile.  Outside of the circle of fighting demons, several dark robed figures were running about, occasionally launching magical attacks through the gaps between the demons.

                “Come on!” Kiluron shouted to Doil, striving to be heard above the din of combat.  “Go for the summoners!”

                Kiluron took off sprinting, spinning his sword in his hand.  Doil shouted something at him, but he couldn’t hear what it was.  Even his own breath was inaudible over the sound filling the vast chamber like a physical thing, leaving it seemingly fit to burst.  Perhaps the noise was a blessing of sorts, for the summoner Kiluron approached from behind had no way of knowing he was there.  With all his strength, Kiluron brought the sword down in a powerful, overhand blow that should have easily cleaved the man’s head in two.  Instead, there was a blinding flash of light, Kiluron felt intense heat wash over him, and he was flung backwards, still clutching the hilt of his sword, the blade having been shattered completely.

                Turning, the summoner took in the sight of Kiluron lying, half-conscious, on the ground, with Doil standing defiantly in front of him.  Extending a single finger, the summoner sent a bolt of lightning at Doil, who raised his scavenged sword as if he could somehow block the electricity with the steel blade.

                A dark blur whipped into place between Doil and the summoner, and the lightning was absorbed by a black blade, which moved in a blur as the muscular priest whipped it around.  There was a tearing sound, and then the summoner dropped, his head separated from his body.  Priest Herlglut moved preternaturally fast for a man so muscle-bound to take the offensive before the demons and their summoners could reorient their attack.  Pointing his free hand at the ground, Herlglut jumped.  The ground around where he had been standing grew so cold it cracked, and the priest flew impossibly high, so that he snatched onto the back of one of the demons that had risen to meet him.  The sudden change in momentum around the single hand spun Herlglut around, and as he did so, he stabbed with his sword while channeling magic through his other hand.  The demon screamed and thrashed, and Herlglut released his grip, allowing himself to be flung off as the demon crashed to the floor in its death throes.

                Herlglut skidded on the ground as he landed, passing beneath the third demon and coming up directly in front of two summoners, who were clearly taken by surprise.  Their surprise proved the death of them as the black sword swept through both of them at the waist, leaving only one summoner and two demons still alive.  Magic still sparking at his fingertips, Herlglut turned to face the two demons, who were now advancing directly at him, flanking the remaining summoner.

                Herlglut spun his sword around adroitly.  “Marinae, if I make it back to the Isle alive, you are going to owe me more than a couple of favors,” he muttered.

                Patiently, Herlglut waited for the demons and the summoner to reach him.  He did not have long to wait; in moments, his opponents had closed the distance between them, but Herlglut was already in motion.  If he had seemed dangerous before, he seemed even more so now.  His left hand crackled incessantly with magic, while his black sword was now burning fiercely with blue flames.  The demons died quickly as the flaming sword cut into them, leaving only the summoner remaining.  Facing each other, neither Herlglut nor the summoner moved.

                “Fool,” the summoner spat.  “You shouldn’t have come.  This doesn’t concern you, and you don’t have the stomach to do what must be done.”

                Herlglut held his sword lightly before him.  “It very much concerns me,” he said.  “There is so little balance here.  Why do you think there is so much ready power in this place?”

                “Your balance cult means nothing,” the summoner retorted.  “We made this deliberately.”

                “Yes,” Herlglut growled.  “I’m sure you did.

                Neither said anything more.  The summoner spread both of his arms wide and unleashed a torrent of raw energy.  Dropping his sword, Herlglut raised both of his hands before him, but no shield appeared.  Instead, he took the full force of the energy into himself.  In moments, he had begun to glow.  His whole body visibly tense and trembling with the effort, Herlglut slowly forced one arm up to point directly at the ceiling.  The blistering pillar of energy exploded from that hand like it was some kind of antenna.  The crackling beam of energy was so intense that it was almost unnoticeable when the summoner abruptly burst into flame.  Clothes smoldering, gritting his teeth, Herlglut drew in all the energy that had been stored in the chamber through the summoner, who howled as his body melted, and flung it into the air.

                The display seemed to go on for an eternity.  The summoner was gone, so now there was just Herlglut, both arms now outstretched over his head, his whole body glowing.  Kiluron and Doil looked on in horror, not knowing what they should do, if they should do anything at all.  The whole, vast chamber was lit by unnatural light, casting harsh shadows in every direction.

                At last, the magical light show ceased, and Herlglut collapsed.  Kiluron and Doil hurried to him, finding him unconscious, his body covered in burns, his clothes in tatters, but still, somehow, alive.

                “What happened?” Kiluron asked Doil.  “And please don’t tell me you don’t know.”

                “I can only guess, my lord,” Doil said.

                “Then guess,” Kiluron ordered.  Neither of them dared touch Herlglut yet.  His skin still seemed to be shimmering with magic.

                Doil thought for a moment.  “Since I have to guess, I believe that there must have been some kind of huge imbalance being built up in this chamber.  Since magic is based on imbalance, that means a lot of potential for magic. To correct the imbalance, all of that stored magic potential had to be used up.”

                Kiluron rubbed his head.  “I’ll pretend that I understood that.”

                Doil smiled faintly and returned to his examination of the priest, whose skin had finally returned to a more normal hue.  “We need to get him back to the Isle of Blood,” Doil said.  “I don’t think anyone else has the knowledge needed to help him.”

                Kiluron nodded.  “Alright.  Come on.  Help me lift him.”

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                Kiluron glared at the Prime.  “You can’t do this,” he said angrily.

                Prime Weflering regarded the Sub-Prime steadily.  “I can and I will,” he said.  “The law is the law.”

                “Everything Priest Herlglut did was in defense of our land and our people, not to mention myself and Doil.  We would not be here having this argument if it weren’t for his actions, and there would still be demons and their summoners wreaking havoc across the land,” Kiluron tried to refrain from shouting.  The Prime wouldn’t respond to emotional arguments.  He needed to keep a cool head and try to prevail with logic.

                “None of that changes the facts,” Prime Weflering stated.  “Priest Herlglut used magic within Merolate, a crime which is expressly described and punishable by death.  It is fortunate that he was not acting on behalf of the Isle of Blood, or his actions could be considered incite to war.”

                “If the law would condemn this man to death for what has occurred,” Kiluron’s voice was icy calm, “then it is the law that is in the wrong.”  Before Prime Weflering could respond, Kiluron turned abruptly on his heal and stalked out of the throne room.

                “Borivat,” Prime Weflering said tiredly.

                “Yes, my lord?” Borivat asked, stepping closer to the throne.

                “Kiluron is not wrong,” Prime Weflering said.  “But the law is the law.”

                “Yes, my lord,” Borivat agreed.

                “I don’t suppose that you could advise me on some ingenious solution to this mess in which we now find ourselves?” Prime Weflering asked.

                Borivat considered.  “It is within your power to grant a pardon.”

                “That’s not a good option,” Prime Weflering said.  “Let’s consider the matter from a legal standpoint.  If we were to secure his extradition from the Isle of Blood, and put him on trial according to our laws, what tactic might his lawyer employ?  Could he gain an acquittal before a jury?”

                “I think the best argument might be one of self-defense,” Borivat suggested.  “A good lawyer would be able to spin the whole thing to be a matter of self-defense, and our self-defense laws are quite broad.  I believe they amount to justifying any action deemed necessary by the individual to neutralize the threat.  Between the undeniable service this priest has rendered us, and the self-defense argument, there is a good chance that he would be acquitted, provided he had a skilled lawyer.”

                “Self-defense,” Prime Weflering mused.  “That’s good.  That might just work.”

                He had started to say something else, but the door to the throne room swung abruptly open.  “My lord,” a guard announced, “there is a priest from the Isle of Blood requesting an audience with you.”

                “Send him in,” Prime Weflering said.  He looked over at Borivat.  “Here we go.”

                “My lord, Prime Weflering,” the guard announced, “I present High Priest Yorin, of the Isle of Blood.”

                Prime Weflering rose, astonished.  He had only met the high priest once, when he had been made Prime; the man almost never left the Isle of Blood.  “High Priest Yorin,” he said.  “This is most unexpected.”

                The man who walked into the throne room was old.  It was the first, unavoidable conclusion than anyone who saw him would come to.  High Priest Yorin had only a few wisps of white hair remaining on his speckled head, and his skin sagged on his bony frame, as if he had shrunk, but his skin had not shrunk with him.  He leaned heavily on a gnarled wooden cane as he shuffled into the throne room, and though he bore the traditional sword of the high priest of the Isle of Blood, a black weapon inscribed with silver runes, it seemed to be much to large and heavy for him.  Even his red robes, which were embroidered with silver thread, seemed almost too much for his frail frame.

                His voice when he spoke, however, was sure, if quiet.  “My apologies, Prime Weflering,” he said.  “I hope that I have not unduly disturbed you.  There are matters of grave importance which we must discuss.”

                “Not at all,” Prime Weflering said.  “You are always welcome.  Please, sit.”

                “Thank you,” High Priest Yorin said, seating himself in a chair close to the throne.

                “If this is concerning the Priest Herlglut,” Prime Weflering began.

                “In a manner of speaking,” High Priest Yorin said.  “But perhaps not in the way you believe.”

                “According to the rule of law, we must bring Priest Herlglut to trial,” Prime Weflering said carefully, “but I plan to assign him our best lawyer to make a case of self-defense, which is sure to earn him an acquittal…” he trailed off as the high priest held up a placating hand.

                “That will not be necessary,” High Priest Yorin said sadly.  “Priest Herlglut is no longer among the living.  His mind and body were unable to recover from the forces they underwent.”

                Prime Weflering blinked.  “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said.

                “As am I to say it,” High Priest Yorin said.  “He will be dearly missed by many.  Although he was not always the most outwardly friendly, he had a good heart, and an indomitable will.  We have him to thank for the knowledge which I am here to share with you.”

                “I don’t understand,” Prime Weflering said warily.

                “I am certain that you have been informed already of what transpired in the Gältrok’nör,” High Priest Yorin said.  “I wish I could tell you that what occurred in that ancient place was the end of the story.  But it is not.”

                “What do you mean?” Prime Weflering asked.

                “Heart City was once home to many wonders that would baffle the modern eye, but their grandeur and power came at a heavy price.  They practiced human sacrifice to maintain their power and to expand it,” High Priest Yorin explained.  “There is a reason that the ruins of Heart City are said to be haunted; it is because they are.  The people who built the city summoned a guardian for it, a demon of incredible power, which they paid for through the sacrifices of thousands.  It has lain dormant for millennia.  We at the Blood Isle have been aware of it, but because of its dormancy we have not considered it a concern.  That has now changed.  What happened in the Gältrok’nör awakened the Guardian.”

                Prime Weflering’s brow creased worriedly.  “You believe this will prove a threat to Merolate?”

                High Priest Yorin shook his head.  “The Guardian presents a direct, physical threat to no one.  It cannot leave Heart City, nor can it directly influence events outside of it.  That is not to say, however, that it is not a threat, far from it.  The Guardian is perhaps the most terrible danger we have ever faced.  This is a threat not to Merolate.  It is a threat to the entire world.”

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The end of Blood Magic S1:E2: Here There Be Dragons? 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 next episode will go live on March 31st, 2020.

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