Having reached the end of the row, Tragger stopped and leaned upon his scythe, wiping stray bits of plant and dirt and moisture from the old blade.  It was older than he was, but the edge was still bright and keen; he had sharpened it before the harvest had started.  Certainly it resisted the persistent, fine, misty rains of autumn better than he did, with his old, aching bones and weathered, calloused hands.  Still, he was not about to let his sons do all of the work, no matter how strong and capable they had become in the past few years.  They were good lads, but that was no reason that their father ought to shirk his own responsibilities.  He had created this farm, moving out to this place that was halfway between a forest and jungle when old Prime Enderva had started the pioneer program.  There was a new Prime now, he had heard, Prime Wezzix, but that didn’t matter much to Tragger.

               The pioneer program offered a good enough life, at least for someone like him.  He had gotten money from the merchant who had bought his old farm on the alluvial plains closer to Merolate, which was increasingly where the city folk wanted to be, and where the soil was poor from centuries of farming.  It had been enough to hire some field hands to help him create his new farm, further from the city, where he could have some peace and quiet from the constant interference of merchants and nobles and other busybodies who had never worked an honest day’s work in their lives.  People who didn’t understand the soil more intimately than they understood their wives could never understand somebody like Tragger, and that was how he liked it.

               These days, he only went into the city once or twice a year to buy and sell goods, trading his crops for the few things he couldn’t make himself, and to pay his taxes.  That elicited grumbling from all of the pioneers, but it was a good-natured sort of grumbling.  They knew well enough that they had a fair deal with the province governors.  They paid a portion of the excess farm goods they produced as a tax, and in return they were left as much alone as it was possible to be.  That meant fewer protections against invasions or attacks compared with the towns and cities and villages, or even the more traditional farms, but there was hardly much risk of that about which to be concerned.  No one alive could remember a raid from the Unclaimed Territories penetrating so far into Merolate.

               Last time he had gone into town, there had been rural roads, oases, outposts, even lumber mills and other extravagances along the way, courtesy of the merchants.  They just didn’t understand that the pioneers who came out this way wanted nothing to do with them or anyone else.  Sure, the lumber mills would process the trees that the pioneers felled to clear their fields, albeit for a fee, and what use did someone like Tragger have for perfectly milled boards?  No, the way he hewed them, with an axe or a hatchet or a saw, stepping down along the side and trimming as he went, was more than enough for his purposes.  That was how his great-great-grandfather had done it, back when the city of Merolate had been more like a town, and it that was how Tragger hoped his sons and their grandsons would do it.

               Besides, wrenching the stumps from the soil after the trees were felled so that a plow could get through the loamy earth was the real hard work.  That, and keeping the cloying, overpowering undergrowth from overwhelming everything.  With the trees felled, there was nothing to keep away the sunlight, and the normal undergrowth was in constant competition with the crops Tragger and his family needed to survive.  Despite the challenges, they succeeded, year after backbreaking year, and this year had been no different.  Now, it was time to harvest.  Autumn brought cooling temperatures and perpetual rain that fell in a long, monotonous drizzle seemingly all through the season, and transformed the fields into veritable swamps, and left a lingering, chilly dampness to the whole grey-green world that could not be dispelled by the brightest fire in the homiest hearth.

               Such was harvest time, the busiest time of the year.  They had to pull in the harvest before the roots rotted and left the entire crop unusable, and then they had to get it loaded into the wagons and deliver it to town before the roads became impassable.  Hefting his scythe again, Tragger confronted another row of crops, set his stance, and began the long, sweeping motions that would carry him down across the field.  He would do it dozens more times before the day was done.

               “Fire!” Sagger yelled.

               Tragger caught his backswing short and spun around, searching.  There was no way there could be a fire, not in autumn and its perpetual rains, but if this was a joke by his youngest son, he was not amused.  To his horror, he saw flames leaping up from the old log barns.  “Fire!” he echoed, for once not worrying about the quality of the blade or the effect of the water and simply dropping his scythe as he ran for the barn.  His knees popped, and his hips grumbled, but there was no time to waste.

               Surely the fire would not spread, with how wet everything was; even now the rain was falling in an incessant blanket of moisture that coated everything and made the footing treacherous; Tragger nearly tripped and broke an ankle more than once as he made his way awkwardly across the field and its many furrows.  Yet he couldn’t take that chance.

               From a doorway outlined in flame, he saw the blummoxes come stampeding out into the rain and muck, their shaggy beards wagging back and forth as their heads bobbed with ponderous motion, rapidly becoming mud-coated.  As if the beasts of burden needed more encouragement than the flames chasing at their heels, Tragger saw Sagger stumbling out through a cloud of smoke behind the blummoxes, cracking a whip in generally the right direction, his other arm held over his mouth and nose as he coughed smoke.  The lead blummox had just reached the edge of the field when a dark shape detached itself from the dense cloud of smoke and steam that hung low over the farm.  The shape swooped down and scooped up the blummox in massive talons; the beast made a gentle lowing noise that seemed to contain not nearly a sufficient measure of panic as it was carried above the hanging smoke ceiling.

               Tragger pulled up in his haphazard run, staring after the disappearing shape and its blummox cargo.  As he watched, another shadowy form speared down like a hawk from the smog to snatch another blummox and disappear back into the clouds.  Except that it was a hawk large enough to carry away an animal that weighed almost fifteen times more than he did.  He cursed.  “Leave them!” he yelled at Sagger and his other sons.  “Get inside!  Get everyone inside!”

               They would lose the blummoxes, he was sure.  Possibly the crops, too.  With the barn in flames, there was nowhere inside to protect either the beasts or the crops, but Tragger put aside those worries; his first concern was getting his family to safety, or at least somewhere a bit more sheltered.  Blummoxes, even crops could be replaced, in time.  His sons could not be.

               “Is everyone here?” Tragger asked, when he thought everyone had effectively crowded themselves into the main room of the cabin and barred the door.  Once, this room had been the entire cabin.

               “I think so,” his wife replied, looking around and trying to count her sons.  She barely looked shaken by the chaos; she was sturdier than the stumps, that woman.  “What happened?  I saw the fire, and Sagger’s been babbling something about flying monsters…”

               “I don’t know what happened,” Tragger grumbled.  His daughters told him that he sounded grumpy all the time, but he thought that was just how he spoke.  “Flying monsters is right – I saw some creature out of a nightmare come down and take up our blummoxes.  Somehow the barn caught fire.  We can only hope it doesn’t spread to the crops still in the fields.”

               His wife swallowed, looking slightly pale.  She knew the implications as well as he did.  “In the middle of autumn?”  It wasn’t so much that she was doubting him as that she needed confirmation of something that seemed impossible.

               “I wouldn’t have believed it either, if I hadn’t seen it.”  Tragger didn’t add that he had thought it a poor joke on his son’s part, at first.  He strove to keep the weariness from his voice.  His family needed him to be stronger than that.

               “Maybe those monsters did it,” Sagger suggested.

               Tragger exchanged a look with his wife.  “I refuse to believe,” he said, “that we’ve been attacked by dragons.”

               A huge fire roaring in the hearth did little to dispel the dampness in the meeting chamber; it made it so that all of the Prime’s ministers sounded stuffy and clogged up, even more so than usual; Kiluron found that he was spending more time trying not to laugh at the nasally voices than he was listening to what they were saying.  Not that he ordinarily managed to pay much attention to these meetings.  The ministers droned on and on and on, and though Kiluron usually started out with the best of intentions, it was difficult when he knew that Borivat would give them a summary when it was all over.  Doil, of course, took detailed notes through the whole proceedings.

“My lord,” Minister Adima of Agriculture and Industry reported, bowing to Prime Wezzix, “I have been receiving some troubling reports from the pioneer regions.  Many of the homesteads are reporting attacks by winged beasts that set fire to buildings and steal livestock.  Much of the harvests have been ruined; many of the reports indicate that the farmers worry they may not have enough to make it through the winter.”

               This attracted Kiluron’s attention.  It wasn’t often that dragons were discussed in boring ministry meetings.  “How many is many?” Prime Wezzix asked.

               “More than half of the pioneers, by some estimates.”  Minister Adima appeared concerned.  “I know that their protections are less because of their status, but this is a matter of concern for the entire Union, I fear.  And what if it begins to spread to the towns and villages?”

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

               Minister Adima shook her head.  “I’m afraid not, my lord.”

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

               “I’m afraid not, sire,” Borivat said.  “There are myths of wyverns and other dragons, but even if true, they are not purported to be the sort to attack a homestead.”  Kiluron rolled his eyes; only Borivat could make a discussion about possible dragon attacks only a few days’ ride from Merolate City sound like some boring discussion of taxes.

               “It must be a beast of some kind, though,” Prime Wezzix mused.  “That many people reporting similar things aren’t likely to simply be imagining those sorts of details.  Search the library.  See if you can find any reference that would match the descriptions we’ve received.”

               “Yes, my lord,” Borivat bowed.

               Prime Wezzix turned back to Minister Adima.  “Thank you.  Anything else from Agriculture and Industry?”

               ”No, my lord,” Adima answered.  “That’s all from me.”

               “Alright.  Minister Kelina?” Prime Wezzix continued with the meeting.

               Kiluron glanced at Doil, who appeared to have not let the discussion distract him in the least from his persistent notetaking.  “Psst, Doil,” Kiluron hissed, poking him with his booted toe.  “What do you think about this?”

               “Hm?” Doil asked, not looking up from his paper.

               “The dragon attacks!” Kiluron had to fight to keep his voice low enough to not interrupt the rest of the meeting.  “Do you think it’s real?  I wonder what Vere has to say about fighting dragons.  This almost is enough to make me glad that the Prime forces me to go to these awful meetings.”

               Doil sighed.  “These are important affairs of state, my lord.  When you are Prime, you will need to know how to conduct meetings with your ministers and receive their reports.  This is supposed to be instructional.  Everyone in this room is important to the proper functioning of the Union.”

               Rubbing his temples, Kiluron sat back and tuned out Doil and the rest of the meeting.  It was much more exciting to sit back and fantasize about dragons.

               It seemed an interminable meeting of the ministers to Doil, too, but for very different reasons.  For him, the meeting seemed to be getting in the way of real scholarship.  As soon as the Prime ordered Borivat to search the library for references to whatever beast it was that was terrorizing the pioneers, Doil knew that he would be joining the Prime’s Advisor in the library.  The library in Merolate was not just the city library; it was the whole Union’s library, and it might have been Doil’s favorite place in the entire city.  The building was relatively nondescript; most of its immense size was underground – as a result, the floor numbers were reversed.  It housed all manner of records for the kingdom, in addition to an ever-growing collection of texts on all variety of subjects.  There were those, mostly amongst academics, who claimed that the Union’s true power and success came not from its Charter or from its provinces or from its Prime, but from its library. 

               Once Doil and Borivat presented their authorization to the guardsmen at the security checkpoint, they descended to the fifth floor, where most of the texts pertaining to scientific disciplines were housed.  The scent of the endless shelves of books and tomes and scrolls and grammaries and grimoires of all imaginable dimensions was better than that of fine wine, at least in Doil’s estimation. 

               He glanced at Borivat.  “Where do we start?” he asked.  “’Winged beasts that eat livestock’ isn’t much upon which to base a research initiative.”

               “The zoology section seems a reasonable place to begin,” Borivat determined, 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 Union’s borders and the oceans frequented by her vessels, it also held descriptions of beasts from most of the rest of the continent of Lufilna, some from Nycheril, 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 rubbed his palms together.  Borivat smiled at his expression and led them down an aisle.

               “Here we are,” Borivat said, stopping before several shelves of books in the same form.  They were thick, leather bound tomes, with stylized lettering on the reinforced spines.  “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.  Some of his enthusiasm diminished beneath the weight of paper.  “Please tell me that they’re organized by something like ‘mode of locomotion’ or ‘beasts that prey upon 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.”  He was no longer sure if he was excited or intimidated.

               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 after a long stretch of reading.  “A moa.  It’s a large bird…oh.  It’s extinct.  And it couldn’t fly.  And it ate plants.”

               “Which is just what’s we’re looking for, except not at all,” 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 – they discovered it on one of the Nycheril expeditions,” Borivat answered absently, peering at the description of the roc.  “According to this, the roc is only found in the West Elif Islands.”

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

               “I don’t know.  But I’m not convinced this is the answer,” Borivat said, continuing to read.  “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.  “Besides, these field scholars tend to be a little less inclined towards rigorous definitions than are academicians.  I don’t think we’re dealing with a mergrort, though.”

               “Neither do I,” Doil admitted.  “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.  Prime Wezzix would want some kind of an answer by morning, which meant working through the night, but Borivat was increasingly convinced that the answers did not reside in the Merolate library.  As the lanterns dimmed and began to burn out, Doil’s head slowly drooped, until he was laid across a 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 lungs burning with the smell of remembered smoke?”

               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.  “And the dragons, if they ever existed, were not said to be given to wanton destruction.”

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

               “Perhaps a renegade sect…” Borivat suggested.  “It wouldn’t be the first time.”  The last time had been more than twenty years ago.

               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 your Merolate Union.  Even if your laws, your Blood Decrees, 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 whispered, looking down.  “I will see you tomorrow night?”

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

               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.  The temple, and all of the surrounding structures, were old, older than Merolate itself, and their history was not pleasant.  Marinae shuddered and hugged herself.  Superstitious sailors liked to decry a red sunrise as a bad omen.  After Borivat’s visit, 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 did not 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, reveling in the strength of her magically restored body; 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 of the two planes balanced as if upon 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 and spiritual planes; 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 both planes.  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, a concept that at times challenged the faith’s greatest philosophers.  Marinae drew her knife and gently slid the blade over the meat of her thigh, wincing slightly as the cold, sharp metal 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 both planes, as all living creatures exist in both planes.  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 before she pulled out her mirror.  The surface was no more reflective than the back of a tarnished 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, shuddering 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 to correct 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 on Merolate’s frontier 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 plane, however; with the sight granted by the blood mirror, Marinae could view the spiritual plane, after a fashion, although view was perhaps not the right word.  It was fortunate this was the case, for it was in the spiritual plane that she was able to discern something unusual.  Eddies of a sort in the suffusing substance of the spiritual plane, a little like the ruts in a dirt road or the swirling iridescence on the surface of a soap bubble, spun out from a central source in tendrils creeping from Heart City.  Looking closer, Marinae could make out that many of the paths terminated at farms which, in the physical plane, appeared 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 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 am 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.”

               “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.  “You know that.  There are still witches enough providing medicine and learning for the remote regions of Lufilna, regardless of the assertions of your infernal Blood Decrees.”

               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.

               Sub-Prime Kiluron looked at Heart City from his perch upon a nearby hill.  It 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, it had likely 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 surrounding hills, , 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 the place must once have been, but Kiluron wasn’t interested in archeological curiosities.  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 he had come to investigate.

               How Borivat had come to the conclusions he had, Kiluron hadn’t been able to discern.  Prime Wezzix 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 Union.  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.  The Prime selected a Sub-Prime from the populace to train and eventually elevate to the role of Prime.  Apparently, that made him disposable.

               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 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 Vere’s best scouts.  Having scouts in what was primarily a guard force was unusual, but it was a known quirk of how Merolate’s Charter had been drafted.  “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 Vere’s lessons in military leadership were finally starting to sink in.

               The scouts shook their heads and motioned their readiness.  They were as prepared 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 open plains 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 proceeding as 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, just thick clothing.  It wouldn’t turn an arrow, but it could be surprisingly effective in blunting the initial damage from swords and daggers.  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 to learn anything useful.  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 with slow, almost painful steps, 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.  The scouts had mentioned how they were taught to move so slowly that a single step could take nearly half the night in order to be unnoticeable even when surrounded by enemies; fortunately, that extreme was not required for their current task.  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, bandits, and other characters 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 decide a direction and then traverse the gap 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 patrols had been posted, it would be on 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 center.

               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 noted 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 go to the next spoke, that way, and head inward.  Move as fast as you can.  Understood?”  He wasn’t sure if it was a sound plan, but he felt a need to decide something.

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

               “Go!” Kiluron whispered with as much urgency as he could.  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.

               When Kiluron came to, the first thing of which he became conscious was how desperately he wanted to rub his head.  The pain splitting his skull was unbearable.  It made him want to wretch, which he did, painfully and drily into the gag.  He couldn’t rub the aching lump on his skull, 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 a ruddy radiance 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 way away, a person who seemed awfully small, and wore Kiluron’s personal sigil.  Doil.

               Struggling and 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 who read about it in a book?”

               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 moment 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 him stumbling backwards with 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.  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 and speared through the air 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 interjected, “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 an independent manifestation and sets it free in the physical plane.”

               “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, walked 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.

               “Huh.”  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, and 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.

               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, almost half again as tall as a man.  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 was not taking the subtle approach.

               There was a torch burning just inside the door.  Kiluron had to reach up to yank 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, although narrow was an odd term to use.  The sense of it was certainly narrow, yet it was as tall as most corridors in Merolate Castle.  It, like the pit above, was also paved neatly in stones, which became progressively less apparently aged the deeper they descended.  Every few feet, they passed additional torches, also lit and also well above head-height, 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 was not 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.  It, like the doors and the passage itself, felt off in its proportions, like everything had been made just slightly too large.  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.  Like all of the other doorways they had encountered, these seemed just slightly larger than was human.  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 through 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.  The attempt fooled neither him, nor Doil.

               Picking up the short sword with trembling hands, Doil followed Kiluron through the door.  Once again, they found themselves moving down another 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 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.  That suspicion did not bode well for he and Doil, and he swallowed and flexed his fingers around his sword hilt.

               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 again 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 a few handspans 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 half step behind.

               Passing through the doorway, Kiluron felt his skin tingle, as if he’d been immersed in a thunderstorm, or perhaps several thunderstorms, and for the first time he saw clearly the reported demons.  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 his 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!”  He didn’t know if they would be able to kill the summoners with steel weapons, but that seemed a better bet than the demons, which they couldn’t even reach.

               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 breathing was inaudible over the sound filling the vast chamber like a physical thing, leaving it straining to contain the sloshing, noisome volume.  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 of 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, though he hadn’t heard the noise of its demise.

               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 now a more violent demon than the summoned monsters.  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 in a sudden calm, neither Herlglut nor the summoner moved.

               “Fool,” the summoner spat.  “You shouldn’t have come.  This doesn’t concern you and your pathetic cult, 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 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 like a star.  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.

               Then 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.”

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

               Prime Wezzix 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 Wezzix stated.  “Priest Herlglut used magic within Merolate, a crime which is expressly described and punishable by death under the Blood Decrees.  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 Wezzix could respond, Kiluron turned abruptly on his heal and stalked out of the throne room.

               “Borivat,” Prime Wezzix said tiredly.

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

               “Kiluron is not wrong,” Prime Wezzix sighed.  “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 Wezzix asked.

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

               “That’s not a good option,” Prime Wezzix declared.  “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 Wezzix mused.  “That’s good.  That might just work.”

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

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

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

               Prime Wezzix 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 managed without injecting too much of his surprise into his voice.  “This is most unexpected.”

               The man who walked into the throne room was old.  It was the first, unavoidable conclusion to which anyone who saw him must come.  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 himself 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 too large and heavy for him.  Even his red robes, which were embroidered with silver thread, seemed almost to overwhelm his frail frame.

               For all his apparent physical frailty, his voice when he spoke was sure, if quiet.  “My apologies, Prime Wezzix, for my unannounced arrival,” 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  Wezzix replied.  “You are always welcome.  Please, sit.”

               “Thank you.” High Priest Yorin seated himself in a chair close to the throne.  There was a protracted silence; though the High Priest of the Isle of Blood might formally be welcomed as a foreign head of state, the relationship between him and Merolate’s Prime was far from cordial.

               “If this is concerning the Priest Herlglut…” Prime Wezzix 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 Wezzix began to explain, “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.” There was obvious sadness in his voice.  “Priest Herlglut is no longer among the living.  His mind and body were unable to recover from the forces they underwent.”

               Prime Wezzix blinked.  “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said as diplomatically as he could.

               “As am I to say it,” High Priest Yorin agreed.  “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 Wezzix said warily.

               “I am certain that you have been informed already of what transpired in the Gältrok’nör,” High Priest Yorin explained.  “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 Wezzix 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.  Little is now known about its original inhabitants, but it is known that 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 beings 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 Wezzix’s brow furrowed.  “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, not in its present manifestation.  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.”

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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