Twenty-Five Years Ago

               Smoke swirled insensately about the ceiling, sending vague, thin shadows playing across the walls and the felt-covered, circular table at which four hooded men sat in silent contemplation of the books laid out before them, before drifting idly out through the half-opened shutters that opened onto the little balcony, where innocent devices were fixed in unblinking regard of the stars in the night sky.  A cool, humid breeze blew aside some of the thick, hot air in the little room above the house downstairs.  One of the men looked up from the paper over which he had been bent, pen in hand.

               “These philosophies are inadequate to explain the observations we’ve been making.”  Jophon was cleanshaven, and his eyes were bright beneath his hood.  All of the men wore their cloaks even inside on this hot night; one could never be too careful.  “It is time to consider that the Temerin Model might be an invalid explanation.”

               Borivat, who in that place was known as Novin, paged back through his own book of calculations and measurements and spoke without looking up from the writing there.  “It could still be an unknown property of the lens-grinding technology.  A distortion of some kind introduced by the processes we employed.”

               Jophon jerked his chin towards a third figure at the table.  “What about you, Prondus?”

               Prondus’s voice was thin, almost reedy, which gave his words an odd, whistling quality.  It was why he rarely spoke unless someone prompted him, but that meant he had more time to think than did even intellectuals like the others at the table.  “I – I am inclined to agree with Jophon.  The Temerin Model will at least need to be updated, if these measurements continue to hold consistently.”

               Esaphatulenius, the final member of this nocturnal conclave, cleared his throat, and everyone else stopped to listen.  No one knew where he had come from, or how he knew the things that he knew, but his results were no mystery.  To those who knew of him, he was perhaps the greatest genius in history.  “The Temerin Model was doomed from the moment of its inception.  Temerin was grasping at straws to explain something he could not fully comprehend to meet political necessity.  It was always expedient, not rigorous.  The fact that it was accepted at all is only a testament to the stranglehold that Merolate has on the intellectual development of this continent.”  Esaphatulenius looked from man to man around the table.  “Tell me.  What theory did Temerin replace?”

               The three other men at the table exchanged wary glances.  Jophon spoke.  “Its formal name was Erov’s Model, but it was just the latest iteration of the Balance cult’s attempts to explain the World.”

               “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that the Blood Priests’ explanation is more objective than that of a Merolate scholar?” Borivat looked around at his companions, shifting uncomfortably in his chair when none of them would meet his eyes.

               “What did Erov’s model claim?” Esaphatulenius asked, his words slow and deliberate.

               There was a long silence before Prondus spoke.  “You’re all familiar with Temerin’s invocation of branching Worlds?”  Nods all around.  “Instead of invoking infinitely branching Worlds, Erov’s model uses inverses to internally equalize the universe in both Realms.  Its mathematics require the existence of only a single alternate World.”

               “A world that the Blood Priests claim is their oft-discussed afterlife.”  Borivat looked around.  “It’s obviously a religiously motivated theory.”

               “What are you afraid of, Novin?  Prime Avrix doesn’t arrest people just for discussing Blood Magic.”  Jophon jerked his head at Esaphatulenius.  “I say we hear what he’s suggesting.”

               Esaphatulenius inclined his head.  “I believe that all of us can agree that the concept of distinct spiritual and physical Realms is nothing but religious nonsense.  These measurements we have taken, however, match up much more closely with the predictions of Erov’s model than they do Temerin’s.”

               “That’s true,” Prondus affirmed, looking up briefly from his own figuring.  “Temerin’s Model predicts a chaotic universe.  These measurements show very clear patterns.”

               Borivat frowned.  “It could be us misinterpreting the data.  Human philosophy suggests that our minds are wont to apply patterns where none actually exist.  To invoke an ordered universe seems to be nothing but wishful thinking.  Randomness does allow for the random appearance of patterns, too.”

               Jophon shook his head, dismissing the argument, but Esaphatulenius nodded thoughtfully.  “A sound argument,” he admitted.  “One of the stronger scholarly arguments for Temerin’s Model, actually, since most otherwise fall to invoking unprovable negatives.  Which, of course, is why Erov’s Model is technically superior – we may, with these devices we have constructed, establish actual proof of its veracity.”

               “Either way, we’re going to need more data,” Prondus said, this time his input delayed as he finished inverting a matrix.  “This is far too small of a sample to even perform valid, significant calculations, much less have them be statistically relevant.”

               Having risen to look out at the sky from the balcony again, Jophon turned back towards the table.  “Well, we’re not going to get any more measurements tonight.  Clouds have rolled in.”  He crossed his arms.  “We might as well return to this next week.”

               Esaphatulenius nodded.  “I concur.  Until next week.”  He nodded at Prondus and Borivat, who each rose and, after checking their hoods, descended from the attic room and its balcony.  In the foyer, Borivat paused.  “You go ahead, Prondus.  I forgot a notebook upstairs.”

               “Very well.  Good night, Novin.”  Prondus walked out the door, and Borivat turned around, facing not towards the stairs but towards the home’s interior.

               “They’ll be staying upstairs awhile?” Marie asked, stepping half out of the shadows that had concealed her.

               “Yes,” Borivat answered, not looking in her direction.  “Jophon just started a fresh pipe before we adjourned.”  He turned now to look at Marie, and his pulse quickened.  “We have time?”

               Marie stepped forward.  Clad only in her nightdress, she pressed herself against Borivat.  “Yes,” she whispered.  Running her hands down his back, she kissed him, and led him deeper into the house.

The Present Day

               Pacing across the room, Kiluron continuously contorted his hands around each other, and occasionally glanced sideways at Doil, who was sitting in his usual chair, reading.  Stopping in mid-pace, Kiluron looked towards him.  “I don’t know,” he huffed.

               “Hm.”  Doil paged through his book.  “What does it mean for something to be statistically significant?”

               “That’s when the numbers mean something, isn’t it?”  Kiluron huffed again and stalked to the chair next to Doil, throwing up his hands as he did so.  “I can’t do this.”

               Doil blinked deliberately, and tried again.  “What is Wreret’s First Postulate?”

               “I don’t know!”  Kiluron scrubbed at his forehead with his palm.  “I don’t know.  None of this makes any sense.”

               Looking up from his book, Doil sighed.  “Did you even read the book?”

               Kiluron looked down.  “I, er, I read most of it.  Some of it.”  At Doil’s continued gaze, he huffed.  “Okay, fine.  I skimmed it.”  Then he added, “There just weren’t enough pictures.”

               It was Doil’s turn to rub his forehead.  “My lord, this was your idea.”

               “I know that!”  Kiluron leapt back to his feet and began pacing again.  “And it was a terrible idea!  Why would I do this to myself?  Why didn’t you talk me out of this?”

               “As I recall, I tried,” Doil observed.  “And I also warned you that it would be best if you at least read the treatise beforehand.  I even found you a copy.”

               “Is it too late to find a way out?” Kiluron wheedled.  “I could have urgent matters of state to which to attend or something.”

               Doil nodded enthusiastically.  “It is most definitely too late to find a way out.  You’re going to go on your rounds with Lady Fetrina, and you’ll just have to hope that you can manage to find something to talk about.”

               With another sigh, Kiluron belted on his sword and rummaged in his wardrobe for his cloak.  “Could you come?  Help me along?”

               Standing up, Doil set the book down on Kiluron’s chair, and headed for the door.  “I’m afraid I have an appointment with Advisor Borivat.  If you’ll excuse me, my lord?”

               Kiluron shrugged.  “It was worth a try,” he said, waving Doil out.  When Doil was gone, he sighed, and flopped right back down in his chair again, not even bothering to move Wreret’s Treatise on An Evidence-Based Approach to Natural Philosophy.  At least it hadn’t actually be written in verse.

               Still, it wouldn’t do to be late for his rounds; that would make what was sure to be a disaster of an experience even more unpleasant.  Pretending at least that he was confident in what he was doing, Kiluron left the castle and headed for Merolate’s city wall to do his weekly rounds with the guards.

               Inevitably he was obliged to detour around several crowded street markets, and there was a wagon somehow wedged across a side street he attempted to utilize, resulting in yet another detour, so although he was not late, the sun was exactly at noon by the time he reached the guard tower.  Kiluron paused then, looking up, where Vere was leaning against a crenellation, chatting amicably with a shining figure who could only be Lady Fetrina.  Actually, Kiluron had to blink a few times, which he blamed on the sun, before he was convinced it was really her; her current blouse and skirt were quite different from the ballgown in which he had last seen her.   Not that he had thought she would wear a ballgown to walk around the walls.  That would have been ridiculous.  With a sigh, Kiluron ascended the stairs to join them.

               Vere noticed him first; he had probably known Kiluron was standing there watching them, despite facing in the opposite direction.  “Ah, Sub-Prime Kiluron.  We were just having a fascinating discussion about a particular eccentric inventor and how his use of rational philosophy principles has led him to some fascinating ideas for machines.”

               “That’s great,” Kiluron said, hoping that his voice was enthusiastic, and not worried.

               “He’s even come up with a way to characterize mechanical advantage.”  Lady Fetrina smiled.  “I would never have expected that a Guardcaptain would be so well-versed in scholarly topics.”

               Kiluron swallowed.  “Yes, well, Vere is notorious for making the rest of us look bad.  Particularly me.”

               To his relief, Fetrina laughed at that.  Vere inclined his head.  “I will take my leave, before our Sub-Prime feels the need to embarrass me further.  Unless you have any questions for me?”

               “I don’t,” Kiluron affirmed.  He turned towards Fetrina as Vere disappeared back into the guard tower.  “So I, uh, usually just walk around the walls, as it were.  Check on the guards as I go, maybe walk around the gate mechanisms if the mood strikes…”

               “Gate mechanisms?  Would I be allowed to see those?” Fetrina asked.  “That sounds absolutely fascinating.”

               Kiluron peered at her face while trying to look like he wasn’t peering at her face.  “Are you being serious, or are you making fun of me?”

               “Not at all,” Fetrina assured him.  “I would love the chance to see such a complex mechanical system.  My own calculations suggest that the main gates might use as many as five different step-gears in order to function.  To actually see the system…”

               “Uh, alright.  We’ll make sure that we see the gate mechanisms.”  Kiluron took a deep breath, and swung his hands down by his sides.  He wasn’t sure exactly what he was supposed to do with them.  He tried crossing them, and clasping them behind his back, but nothing seemed quite right.  Perhaps walking would help.  He gestured along the wall.  “Shall we?”

               Tucking her notebook into the crook of her elbow, Fetrina wrapped her other arm over Kiluron’s in proper escort form, and gave a half curtsey.  “We shall.”

               Blinking and hoping that it wasn’t obvious that he had not intended this sequence events at all, or perhaps he was hoping that it looked like he had intended it – he wasn’t exactly sure which would be better – Kiluron stepped off on his circuit.

               It was dark in the study Doil entered, despite the wan sunlight streaming through the thick, clouded windows: keeping the sun away from the books helped preserve them.  He had to check twice that this was the correct study; he never beat Borivat to these sessions.  There was no doubt, though, so Doil lit the lamps, and settled down to read while he waited.

               Almost one hundred pages later, Doil was beginning to consider that something significant was happening to keep Borivat away, and that perhaps he ought to try to seek him out, when Borivat finally stumbled into the room, closing the door hard behind him and looking warily around, as if he expected shadows between the shelves of the study to be concealing something dangerous.  He saw Doil sitting there, took his presence in for a protracted moment, and then sat down heavily in the other chair in the study, which whooshed in protest at the treatment.

               “I’m terribly late, aren’t I,” he sighed in much the same manner as the chair.

               Doil, who had closed his book and set it upon the end table next to his chair, nodded affirmative.  He pointed to his book.  “About that many pages late.”

               “Guess I knew that,” Borivat admitted.  He looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap, and then looked back up at Doil.  “There’s no reason for you to get involved in this, but the honest answer is that I could use your help.”

               “What are you talking about?” Doil asked.  “Is something going on?”

               “Not nationally, if that’s what you’re thinking.”  Borivat sighed.  “Just demons from my past catching up to me.”

               Doil forced a half-smile.  “Not real demons, I hope?”

               “No, I don’t think so.”  Borivat’s chuckle was similarly stilted.  “Though I’m beginning to wonder just what I managed to get myself involved with.  I thought all of this was done years ago…”

               Swallowing, Doil braced himself.  “I’ll help if I can.”

               Looking sharply upwards, Borivat narrowed his eyes.  “You should ask more questions before you dive into a problem you don’t understand.  I’ve taught you better than that.”

               “I guess Sub-Prime Kiluron’s reckless disregard for himself when someone needs help is rubbing off on me.”  Doil leaned forward.  “I do want to help, if I can.  Even though I doubt there’s much that I can do.”

               Leaning back, Borivat pressed his fingers together.  “If you’re willing, I don’t think I’m in a position to turn you down.”

               “Alright.  What can I do?” Doil asked.

               Borivat shifted in his chair, settling into a more comfortable position.  “Before you can do anything, you need to understand the problem, which means starting at the beginning.  History lesson, I suppose, but in this case it’s my own history we’re going to be talking about.  My wild youth, if that’s what you can call it.  It started, oh, almost thirty years ago.  I was a little older than you are, and then Sub-Prime Wezzix and I did not have the close relationship that you and Kiluron share.  I spent most of my time in scholarly circles, wishing that I could be on a classic university course.  In the process, I became part of a small group of like-minded intellectuals, and like all hot-blooded young men, we thought that we were smarter than those who came before us, that we could change the world…”

Twenty-Eight Years Ago

               Glad to be free of the castle’s confines, Borivat hurried to the market, where Prondus was waiting to meet him.  It was a gloomy sort of day, but warm, and there were plenty of people about their errands, with seagulls wheeling overhead.  As Borivat made his way towards the market, he passed two figures in red robes, addressing a small gathering from a pile of empty crates.  He hurried past, keeping the hood of his cloak up and avoiding making eye contact with the Blood Priests.  There were none around when he got to the market, and he quickly found Prondus.

               “There you are,” Prondus said, gripping Borivat’s arm beneath his cloak.  “What took you so long?”

               “Advisor Dronga would not stop droning on about soil conditions, as if it’s the most important thing in the world.”  Borivat sighed.  “He’s so busy rattling off, and making me rattle off, facts from memory that he’s never done any real scholarship.”

               “Well, you got out now,” Prondus replied.  “Jophon has some kind of an important breakthrough or something to share.  He seemed rather agitated about it this morning.”

               “I got out as soon as I could,” Borivat insisted.  “If Dronga continues to refuse to even consider any of the new theories…”

               Prondus began walking towards Jophon’s estate in the mercantile neighborhood, and Borivat moved along with him.  “There are many who would envy your situation.  I assure you all you are truly missing out on is sharpening your bacha skills.”

               Borivat chuckled.  “A tragedy if ever there was one.  Any idea what this breakthrough of Jophon’s is?”

               Shaking his head, Prondus glanced up at a nearby sundial, and quickened his pace.  “Wish I did.  It’s probably something groundbreaking, as always.”

               “You sound jealous,” Borivat observed.

               Prondus sighed.  “That wouldn’t be fair of me.  But it does sometimes seem like I do all of the mathematical grunt work, and then Jophon leans in and makes some intuitive leap that completes the work.”

               “I assure you, your efforts do not go unnoticed,” Borivat replied.  “I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing that figuring.  I doubt if I even could.”

               “Thanks, Novin.”  Prondus patted Borivat’s shoulder.  “You’re a good friend.”

               Another pair of Blood Priests swept by them, talking quietly between each other and ignoring the way the crowd parted for their passage.  Borivat frowned.  “Have you noticed a lot more Blood Priests around recently?  Seems like every time I walk outside there’s a few of them loitering about.”

               “Hm.”  Prondus looked back at the Blood Priests, and then focused forward again.  “I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.  Isn’t that illegal?”

               “Technically,” Borivat agreed.  “But those laws haven’t been firmly enforced for two generations, not since the purges.”

               The neighborhood in which Jophon lived was quieter, with large homes and estates in many cases hidden behind their own walls.  Marie answered the door to their knock, and ushered them in, her hand lingering perhaps a moment longer than necessary as Borivat walked past her into the house.

               “Jophon is already upstairs,” she said quietly.  “He said to send you right up as soon as you got here.”

               Prondus and Borivat inclined their heads towards her, Borivat’s eyes lingering on hers for a moment, before they both ascended up to the attic room and balcony, where, as Marie had indicated, Jophon was waiting for them.  There was another man waiting there with him, leaning against the inner wall of the balcony and swaddled in a thick, concealing black robe, with the hood pulled low.  Jophon was sitting at the table, working a blacksmith puzzle through his fingers, and he rose when Borivat and Prondus walked inside.

               “About time you two arrived,” he said.  “I have someone to whom I’d like to introduce you.”

               Borivat frowned.  “Hold on.  I thought this was supposed to be a limited intellectual circle.  Didn’t we agree that we all had to agree on any new additions to our councils?”

               Jophon sighed dramatically.  “Don’t get your tunic in a knot.  Once you’ve met him, I’m sure you’ll agree that I made the right choice in bringing him here.”

               Though they had been speaking quietly, the man by the balcony now turned and approached.  “No need to defend me, Jophon.  I am perfectly capable of presenting myself.”  He lowered his hood, revealing an angular face and deep, dark eyes that were almost black, kept in shadow even with the hood removed.  “My name is Esaphatulenius.  I believe that I may be in a position to contribute to your councils.”

               Prondus leaned forward.  “You’re interested in natural philosophy?”

               Crossing his arms, Esaphatulenius strode across the room, before turning back around to look at Borivat and Prondus.  “I suppose you could say that, but my aspirations are rather…grander.”  He paused, apparently savoring the moment.  “Where I come from, devices have recently been developed that allow accurate observation and measurement of celestial bodies not visible to the human eye.  From study of that data, I believe that it is possible to arrive at a theory of natural philosophy capable of explaining not merely the motion of the stars and the planets, but in fact of explaining everything.”

               “I’ve heard that proposed before,” Prondus remarked.

               “Hm, no doubt,” Esaphatulenius agreed.  “However, I go a step further than anyone has dared to go before.  You see, I am convinced that a complete understanding of such a theory would allow one to not merely understand the World, but to predict the course of future events.”

               At this point, Jophon interjected.  “I’ve already put my resources behind Esaphatulenius.  He was just walking me through the materials that we will need to construct these metering devices he had referenced.  So what do you say, Prondus?  Novin?  Do you want to change the world?”

The Present Day

               When Borivat stopped speaking, Doil frowned and leaned back.  “I don’t understand.  What happened to make this such a problem now?  I mean, I assume that you weren’t able to come up with some way of actually predicting the future and understanding the World, or we would know about it.”

               “True enough,” Borivat admitted.  “We never did find a universal description of the World, much less come up with ways to predict the future.  A few years after that meeting, our group underwent a schism, a schism that was reflected in society at large, although the abruptness and nature of it went unnoticed by most.  For the better part of a generation, up to that time, Merolate had been becoming more and more open to the presence of the Blood Priests on the mainland, and Blood worship was relatively proliferating.  Not in huge numbers, certainly, but more than had been seen in decades.  Under the previous Prime, relations with the Isle of Blood had improved, and there was some talk about formally normalizing relationships with the Isle of Blood.”

               Doil nodded.  “But then the last Prime reversed course, and started enforcing the Blood edicts again, ejecting the Blood Priests from Merolate and clamping down on the worship.  That’s all written into the history.  But why?  And what does it have to do with you?”

               “And why did it lead to me being late today, twenty one years later?” Borivat asked, grimacing.  “Because on my way back from the market this morning, Esaphatulenius, a man I’ve not seen since the debacle fifteen years ago, and whom I presumed dead, found me, and told me that he had succeeded.”

               “Succeeded?” Doil repeated.  “As in, he found an explanatory theory?  A means of understanding the World?”

               With a sigh, Borivat nodded.  “So he claims.  I don’t consider it likely that he’s correct, but the veracity of his theories is somewhat irrelevant.  His presence here is dangerous, and we need to get him out of the city.”

               “Are you going to make me ask?” Doil asked.

               Borivat paused.  “Ask what?”

               “What happened?  Why is it that you can’t tell Prime Wezzix about this?  Why did just encountering Esaphatulenius apparently terrify you?”  Doil leaned forward.  “I said I would help, but I need to know what’s going on here.  We can solve this.”

               Pinching the bridge of his nose, Borivat slumped in his chair.  “Alright.  But you must not tell anyone what happened.  There are only three other people still alive who know the whole story.  I guess you’ll be the fifth.”

               “I understand,” Doil promised.

Twenty-One Years Ago

               All around the table, Jophon, Borivat, and Esaphatulenius stood, watching Prondus expectantly.  Jophon had just finished reading off the most recent dataset collected from their makeshift observatory, and now the shutters were closed, blankets pinned over them to lock in the dim lantern light.  They also contained the smoke, making the attic thick with its cloying odor and even dimmer than from the light alone.  Occasionally, Jophon rubbed his index finger and thumb together over a small, polished, black stone, a habit he had picked up after Esaphatulenius had given the stone to him.  Borivat’s gaze shifted frequently from Prondus to Esaphatulenius, who alone of all of them looked expectant, rather than nervous, as if to him the outcome were already a foregone conclusion.  Sometimes, it seemed that every discovery they made was somehow something he already knew, and the discoveries were merely reminders.

               “I’m almost done, I promise,” Prondus protested, pushing another sheet of paper to the side and snatching a fresh one from the rapidly shrinking pile of blank pieces to his right.  He reinked his pen in the same motion, and set to work continuing his calculations.

               “I have every confidence in your ability,” Esaphatulenius assured him, as calm as ever.  He smiled.  “Soon, our work will reach its culmination.”

               “What should we call this new theory of ours?” Jophon asked.  “I mean, Jophon’s Theory sounds pretty good.  Just saying.”

               Prondus looked up sharply.  “I don’t see you doing fractal mathematics.”

               Jophon shrugged.  “Fair point.  Perhaps a more inclusive name is in order.”

               “Maybe we oughtn’t to go naming a theory that hasn’t even been validated yet,” Borivat noted.  “That seems inauspicious.”

               “This from you, Novin?  Superstition?”  Jophon chuckled.  “You’re just nervous that Temerin’s Model won’t hold anymore.”

               “The Theory of Everything,” Esaphatulenius pronounced.  “That is what we ought to name it, for that is what it is.”

               For a moment, Jophon was still, and then he nodded, gesturing at Esaphatulenius with his pipe.  “Yes.  Yes, I think you’re right.  The Theory of Everything.  I like it.”

               “Although I’m sure you wish your name was in it somewhere,” Prondus remarked.

               “Oh, go back to your calculations.”  Jophon forced a laugh.  “I’ll be right back; I’m going to go have my wife pour us drinks so that we can toast our forthcoming accomplishment.”

               When he had gone, Esaphatulenius walked over to the sealed shutters, staring intently at the cloth as if he could see through it and the wooden slats beyond out into the night.  A chair creaked jarringly as Borivat sat down beside Prondus.

               “What test case did you choose?” he asked.

               Prondus didn’t look up from his equations, and it was clear as he spoke that his concentration hadn’t shifted, either.  “Solar eclipse.  Can’t be too much doubt about that.”

               “No, I suppose not,” Borivat agreed.  “That would be rather obvious.”

               Prondus nodded.  “I’ve already run the calculations based on Temerin’s Model.  Under those assumptions, the next solar eclipse won’t occur for another three months.  Erov’s Model places it next month.”

               “It’s the first time that the models have been able to be compared in this way; calculations for other celestial events have proven too complicated, and the measurements too inaccurate,” Esaphatulenius interjected from across the room.  “Of course, neither of them is correct, as we will soon prove.”

               “And when do you think our new theory is going to predict the eclipse?” Borivat asked.  “If it even happens.”

               “Everyone knows the eclipse is going to happen this year,” Prondus argued.  “It’s just a matter of when.”

               Esaphatulenius walked back from the shutters, and leaned towards them across the table.  “The last total solar eclipse was three hundred seventy-eight years ago.  There is no doubt to me that an eclipse will occur.”

               Deliberately, Borivat resisted looking sharply at Esaphatulenius and searching the man’s face.  His almost religious fervor disturbed Borivat more than he cared to admit, and there was silence then save for the scratching of Prondus’s pen across the paper as he did his figuring, occasionally the gentle murmurs of him talking to himself to keep track of particularly complicated figures.  It was some relief to Borivat when Jophon reappeared with drinks in hand, letting a wash of stifling, thick air out into the hall below when he pushed open the trapdoor and let himself back into the attic.

               “So, Prondus, solved it yet?” Jophon asked.  Always one for bellicosity, he pressed the fine, heavy glasses firmly onto the table with hard clacks.

               Looking up with a grimace, Prondus stabbed his pen into the ink again.  “No, and I’m not likely to if you keep interrupting me in mid-calculation.”

               Jophon held up his hands.  “Alright, sorry.  I’ll be quiet now.”

               “Like that’ll last,” Prondus muttered, hunching back down over the paper.

               It did last, though, an awkward silence that ballooned to fill the attic and seemed as odorous and stifling as the smoke swirling all about.  Jophon fumbled in a cabinet, and soon had a fresh pipe lit, belching even more smoke out into the room.  The quiet sound of Prondus finally putting his pen down on the desk next to the final piece of paper was as distinct as a gong strike.

               “It’s finished,” he added unnecessarily.

               Jophon darted to the table, moving with greater alacrity than Borivat had ever seen him exhibit.  “And?  What does it say?  Were we right?”

               “I didn’t find any flaws in the calculations,” Prondus replied, rifling through the finished sheets of his mathematics.  “As for whether we’re right, we’ll find out tomorrow.”

               “Tomorrow?” Borivat asked.  Esaphatulenius was smiling, a cold, knowing smile that seemed quite independent of any normal happiness.

               Prondus nodded and pointed to the numbers near the bottom of the final page, beside a short series of diagrams.  “Our theory predicts that the total eclipse is going to happen tomorrow.”

               Jophon started visibly at this news.  “Tomorrow?” he repeated.  “But that’s too soon.  How will we get our paper published before then?”

               Laughing, Esaphatulenius clasped Jophon’s shoulders.  “Papers?  We have no need for papers.  Tomorrow, the heavens themselves will prove us right, and none will be able to doubt us.”

               “…Except that no one will know that we predicted it,” Jophon remarked.  “So it won’t really do us much good as far as publicity goes.”

               “Oh, they’ll know.”  Esaphatulenius lit a fresh pipe, and his dark eyes seemed to absorb the light from the pipe and swallow it whole.  “By tomorrow night, we will never be reduced to hiding in attics discussing the World in hushed voices again.”

               Although he drank the toasts and offered his congratulations to Prondus and the others, as Borivat left he was more worried about what would happen tomorrow than he was excited about what they had accomplished.

               The next day dawned, and that was some relief to Borivat as he rolled out of bed in the castle; Prondus hadn’t been able to determine precisely when the eclipse would occur, and Borivat had been worried that he wouldn’t have time in the morning to prepare for it.  He wanted to make sure that he was near Esaphatulenius when the eclipse happened.  The way he had been speaking the previous evening had unnerved Borivat, and the feeling had persisted through the hours of the restless night he had spent.

               Leaving the castle, Borivat hurried towards Jophon’s residence.  He had barely left the immediate surroundings of the castle before he had to dodge a pair of Blood Priests hurrying along the street, and he passed two more pairs before he had reached the market district, where he found a particularly tall woman in the robes of a Blood Priestess standing on a pile of crates, polemicizing to a crowd of onlookers.  The crowd seemed larger than usual, and Borivat made to go around, but stopped when he noticed the priestess repeatedly point at the sky.  Keeping his head down, Borivat edged into the outer perimeter of the crowd around the priestess.

               “What’s going on?” he asked of a stranger.

               “Something about repenting our sins and restoring the Balance.  The usual stuff,” the man replied.  “But this time she’s saying something about a coming darkness.”

               “A solar eclipse?” Borivat asked.

               “A what?  I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  The man shrugged away from Borivat.  “Listen to her yourself if you want to know.  I have real work to do.”

               The priestess had digressed into speaking more about the great Balance that the Blood Priests sought to maintain on their mysterious Isle, and how everyone had a responsibility to help maintain the Balance, so Borivat left and continued on past the market section towards Jophon’s residence.  More Blood Priests were striding through the streets, and Borivat noticed that they were all beginning to head in the same general direction, towards the main gates; he also noticed that most of them were not wearing the strange, black swords that he had seen Blood Priests wearing in the past.  It made him pause and wonder if the priestess in the market who had been addressing the crowd had carried a sword, but he could not remember.  Marie answered the door to his urgent knock.

               “Borivat?” Marie asked, letting him in and moving closer to him.

               But Borivat brushed past her, moving towards the attic.  “No time,’ he muttered.  “Where’s Jophon?”

               Marie hesitated.  “He left already, with that other fellow.  They seemed quite excited about something.  Why?”  She examined his face closely.  “Is something wrong?  You look worried.”

               “I wish I knew,” Borivat replied, stopping his headlong rush towards the attic.  “It’s just a hunch, really, and as a scholar, I know better than to trust hunches over hard facts.  But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something important that I’m missing here.”

               When he turned back, Marie had donned a cloak.  “Well, I can tell you that the other fellow you guys meet with, that Esa-whatever his name is, he does not give me a good feeling.”  She leaned in closer.  “Sometimes, when he thinks there’s no one around, I can hear through the walls him performing some kind of chant, like a prayer or a ritual or something.  Doesn’t seem like a very scholarly thing to do, if you ask me.”

               “Prondus.  Has Prondus come by this morning?” Borivat asked, starting towards the door.  He couldn’t quite process Esaphatulenius’s strange rituals right then, but somehow he was not surprised.

               Marie followed him.  “I don’t think so, but the man’s so quiet I might not have noticed…where do you think you’re going?”

               “I could ask the same of you,” Borivat snapped, turning in the doorway.  “You can’t come with me.  I don’t know what’s going on, but there are Blood Priests all over the place, and it’s far too dangerous if we’re right and there’s something nefarious about to occur.  I’m going to the main gate to find out what’s going on.”

               “And I’m coming with you,” Marie retorted.  “No arguments.”  She brushed past him on the way out the door, lingering long enough to give him a kiss, and then she was out on the street, striding quickly towards the main gate.  Shaking his head, Borivat followed.

               There was a crowd gathered at the main gate by the time they arrived, although not an immense one.  The sun was just high enough in the sky to be framed directly between the two guard towers flanking the gate.  A bubble of sorts had been cleared in the edge of the crowd by the gate, where four men stood, and Borivat immediately recognized Esaphatulenius’s tall figure and black eyes.  He was wearing a red cloak, like that of a Blood Priest, but there was an unfamiliar sigil emblazoned upon it.  Before Borivat could attempt to identify it, he had turned around to face the crowd, concealing the cloak behind him, and was gesturing up at the sun, clearing extolling something.

               “The eclipse.”  Borivat grabbed Marie’s shoulder, turning her towards him.  “He must be talking about the eclipse.  He’s clearly planning something.”

               Marie sighed.  “You boys think you’re really smart, don’t you.  I double checked your numbers after you all left; Prondus miscalculated.  Today isn’t going to be a total solar eclipse, just a partial.  Very close to total, but the full one is still most likely going to be in three months.”

               Hesitating, Borivat glanced again towards the center.  He had since identified Jophon and Prondus both standing up front with Esaphatulenius, although Prondus looked distinctly uncomfortable about being there, but he could not identify the fourth figure.  “Even if that’s true, if something happens today it will be enough for whatever reveal Esaphatulenius has in mind.”

               “How do we stop him if we have no idea what’s going to happen?” Marie asked.  “What if we don’t even want to stop him?  I don’t think we know enough about what’s going on.  It’s something bigger than us; we’re only seeing a little piece of it.”

               “I still think we ought to do – “ Borivat cut off, looking up at the sun, shading his eyes with his hands.  “Holy Blood.”

               “Don’t curse, you’ll sound like Jophon,” Marie muttered, turning around towards what Borivat was seeing, and she gasped.  “Nevermind.  Curse all you want.”

               A looming disc of darkness had begun to visibly eat away at the burning orb of the sun.  A few sunbeams were cast off out of the edges as the black disc slowly moved deeper and deeper into the sun.  At first, there had been no noticeable change in the quality of light on the ground, but now the whole world seemed to be in twilight.  Borivat tore his eyes away from the sight of the eclipse and looked again at Esaphatulenius, who was confronting the rising darkness with his arms outstretched.  The sigil on Esaphatulenius’s cloak was again fully visible, and Borivat squinted to recognize it, discerning a disc balance on a closed fist.  It was reminiscent of Blood Worship symbology, but not identical.

               Beside Esaphatulenius, Jophon had his head thrown back, apparently laughing, staring boldly into the vanishing sun, while Prondus was on his knees, the fourth, unknown figure with a hand clamped on Prondus’s neck, keeping his head fixed on the eclipse.

               “No, Prondus,” Borivat muttered.  Without waiting for Marie, he began trying to push his way through the crowd, struggling against the close-packed people, huddled even more tightly together before the heavenly wrath they were witnessing.  Most did not turn away from the eclipse even when Borivat jostled and pushed his way past and through them.  He finally stumbled out of their perimeter and into the clear area below the gate where Prondus, Jophon, and Esaphatulenius were, just as the black disc passed directly over the center of the sun, leaving only a thin ribbon of the sun still visible at the very top, more like a flickering of ephemeral fire than a real burning light; it did little to illuminate the dim twilight world they were now inhabiting.

               All eyes of the crowd were still fixed on the celestial display, unblinking, while Borivat rushed towards Prondus.  He was thrown back by a sudden wash of heat, smacking into the crowd of people and taking several down with him, catalyzing chaos as whatever odd compulsion had kept everyone calmly contemplating the sun’s temporary demise dissipated.  People ran from the sight of the daytime darkness, shouts rose up, and Borivat scrubbed dirt from his eyes, looking towards where his friends had been.

               Jophon and Esaphatulenius were still there, the former laughing and gazing obediently towards the latter, who was gesturing down at the now-inert form of Prondus.  Before Borivat’s eyes, Prondus’s body withered to a husk, streams of fire drawing forth from the wrinkling folds of skin stretched over a bare frame.  The streams of fire twined together over his remains, tangling up and coalescing into a coherent, humanoid form.  The man who had held Prondus’s head was completely gone, save for a trickle of dust tracing along the ground.  There was a flash from the humanoid form of fire, and then it slowly began to dim, crusting over like cooling lava to form a peculiarly horrid exoskeleton that only minimally concealed the burning, radiant flame beneath.  Although it had legs, it did not stand, instead floating just above the ground on the point of one toe.

               Insensately, Borivat started to scrabble forward, towards where Prondus had been.  He felt hands pulling on him from behind at about the same instant that he felt a wash of heat as the fire-creature turned its gaze upon him, then Marie had pulled him back far enough that the beam of incandescent flame it released from its mouth missed them.  Then Marie was helping him to his feet, and they ran from the gate back into the city.

               Somehow, they made it back to Jophon’s residence; it seemed the only place they could reasonably go, and Jophon seemed too occupied to be coming back anytime soon.  Borivat was barely aware of their pell-mell flight through the city streets, though he was aware enough to observe that there were Blood Priests apparently everywhere.  Shutting the door on the wildness and chaos outside was a small, but meaningful comfort.

               “You have to go to the castle.  Tell the Prime what’s happening,” Marie urged him, as soon as they were inside.  She knew that he worked with the Prime, although she did not know his real role, or his actual name.

               Borivat looked at Marie sharply.  “What am I supposed to tell them?  That there’s a fire demon running around and a Blood Priest revolution exploding in the streets?  I’ll sound raving mad.”

               “Somebody has to warn them.  Mobilize the city guard.  Something,” Marie repeated.  “We can’t just sit here.”

               “This is not what I wanted.  I just wanted people to talk to.  Ideas, not explosions,” Borivat complained.  “We should go to the castle.  It’ll be safer there; I know some deep parts where they won’t be able to find us.”

               Marie pulled away.  “I’m not going to go hide in the castle with you.  We need to do something to clean up this mess.  We have a responsibility, even if we didn’t know what was happening.”

               “Fine!” Borivat hauled himself to his feet, stumbled, and regained his balance.  “I’ll go without you.”  Marie watched him reach for the door, her lips trembling slightly, when the door burst open beneath Borivat’s hands, revealing a burly young man with long hair where it had not already receded.  He was wearing the robes and sword of a Blood Priest.

               “Where is it?” he demanded, looking from Borivat to Marie and back again.  “Where is the demon?”  He looked down at some kind of amulet that he held clenched tightly in his left hand, and shook it.  “I know it was here.”  He pointed his sword at Borivat.  “Speak!”

               “What do you want it for?” Marie asked, her voice slightly squeaky.

               The priest’s sword wavered slightly.  “I’m going to kill it!” he growled.  He emphasized his point with the sword.  “And then I’m going to kill whatever misbegotten, arrogant little Imbalanced pervert decided to use a partial eclipse to summon an unstable fire demon.”

               “Who are you?” Marie asked.  “I thought the Blood Priests were supporting Esaphatulenius.”

               “Bah,” the priest growled.  He hesitated a moment, and then jammed his sword into its sheath.  “A few passionate idiots have apparently been swayed by his ideology.  But if you must know, most of the priests are here to try to stop him.  We’ve been hunting him for decades, apparently, though obviously I wasn’t around then.  I’m Herlglut.  Blood Isle Initiate.”  He frowned.  “Now, I know that you had something to do with it; I detect traces of Imbalance all over you.  Spill!”

               Kneading his hands together, Borivat spoke.  “I was trying to get to Prondus.  The man who was sacrificed to the eclipse.  He’s…” he coughed, “He was a friend of mine.”

               “Sorry to hear that,” Herlglut replied, not sounding particularly sympathetic.  “I don’t suppose you know where they were going to go next?  Any secret plans you could tell me about?”

               “They’ve been meeting here for years,” Marie interjected, looking nervously at Borivat and then turning back to Herlglut.  “There might be documents upstairs, in the attic.”

               “I think I would know if those documents spoke about secret plans,” Borivat protested, but Herlglut was already pushing past him deeper into the house, Marie leading him towards the attic.  Reluctantly, Borivat followed.

               Upstairs, Herlglut dug briefly through their piles of papers, scattering them everywhere; Borivat winced seeing years of data thrown about so cavalierly.  Then Herlglut turned towards the balcony, tearing off the blanket covering the shutters and bashing them open to reveal the equipment Jophon had constructed based on Esaphatulenius’s instructions and designs.  Herlglut regarded, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he glared at, the equipment for a few moments, before turning back towards the entrance to the attic.

               “Well, that settles it.  They’ll be back,” he announced.

               “I don’t think that taking measurements of the stars is going to be top of mind for Jophon at the moment,” Borivat remarked.

               Herlglut glared at Borivat, although that seemed to simply be his normal expression.  “These are Balancer devices.  They’re supposed to be able to allow a person to control a summoned expression.”  He paused.  “A demon,” he translated helpfully.  “These contraptions are supposed to help someone control a demon.”

               “Oh.”  Borivat sighed.  “Multipurpose, I guess.  That’s nice.”  He followed Herlglut with his eyes as the burly Initiate plopped himself down in a chair, which protested the treatment, and faced the door.  “What are you doing?”

               “Waiting,” Herlglut answered.  He closed his eyes, and then opened them again a moment later.  “You two might want to shelter somewhere.”

               “Why?” Borivat asked.

               “Do you smell smoke?” Marie asked.

               “Too late,” Herlglut snapped.  The attic door incinerated, and Jophon stumbled into the attic, coughing and hacking, followed a moment later by Esaphatulenius, whose eyes had bled to completely pitch black, with no whites visible at all, and appeared to be in some kind of strange trance, stumbling through the room towards the balcony with the fire demon, its form now vaguely feminine, gliding along behind him, not entirely docile.  Where Herlglut had been sitting a moment before, apparently relaxed, he was now on his feet, his black sword striving with the demon to be the blackest thing in the room.

               Two sure steps, and a lunge, should have put Herlglut in striking range of Esaphatulenius, but the fire demon intervened, a rope of coherent flame wrapping around the Initiate’s wrist and eliciting a grunt of pain, though he held onto his sword, the muscles in his arm contorting like snakes.  Reluctantly, Herlglut turned towards the fire demon, flipping a finger-long spike of ice from his free hand into the creature’s chest; it hissed and jerked away, releasing him.  Borivat stared.

               “Get to the summoner!” Herlglut yelled, dodging a strike from a sword of solid fire that the demon had conjured.  “If he gets hooked up into that apparatus, we might never stop this thing!  Ow!”  He turned his full concentration back on the battle, sucking out the flames that had started on his cloak and flinging them back at the fire demon, which did little but cause even more of the attic to combust.

               Looking around wildly, Borivat caught Marie’s eyes.  She was much closer to the apparatus than he was, and Esaphatulenius appeared not to have noticed her.  She sprang up just as Esaphatulenius reached the balcony, grabbing one of the devices mounted on the railing and yanking it free.  Esaphatulenius whirled around and smacked her across the head, his movements jerky and stiff, but strong enough to throw her back against the balcony’s corner.

               “Marie!” Borivat shouted, scrabbling across the floor towards the balcony and searching for a weapon.  Jophon’s tobacco cabinet exploded in a billowing plume of smoke, making it almost impossible to see anything in the attic, and Borivat coughed and hacked as he crawled across the floor, burning his hands on fallen embers.  He couldn’t tell what Esaphatulenius was doing, but he was certain he didn’t have much time.  Herlglut was still fighting the fire demon, but his strength seemed to be waning; he had resorted mostly to swordsmanship, his magic apparently exhausted, and he looked pale beneath the smudges of smoke and soot, and the garish burns scattered across his body.  His cloak was completely gone, save for shawl-like remains about his shoulders.

               There had been a small knife kept next to the tobacco cabinet; Borivat fumbled, searching for it, and found it when he sliced open his hand with its blade; it was only used for opening letters and tobacco pouches, but it was kept plenty sharp.  He yelped when a shower of sparks burned the back of his neck, thrown up from the clash of the fire demon against Herlglut’s sword, but then kept crawling towards the balcony.  He burst up through the smoke and saw Esaphatulenius on the balcony; Borivat took a deep breath of sweet, fresh air, and lunged at Esaphatunlenius, who saw him coming a moment before it was too late.  He leapt backwards, stumbling and cursing, but there was nowhere to leap; he tumbled over the balcony railing and disappeared from view.  Borivat nearly followed him over the railing from the momentum of his lunge, but managed to catch himself; he crawled as quickly as he could over to where Marie was sprawled.  She wasn’t moving.

               When Esaphatulenius fell, the fire demon looked sharply towards him and tried to follow, which was the opening Herlglut apparently needed; his black sword plunged through the creature, there was a walloping, whooshing noise, and the fire demon collapsed in on itself and vanished, leaving behind only a faint whisper of ash in the air to accompany the trail of destruction it had already wrought.

               Stumbling out of the corner in which he had been hiding for the duration of the conflict, Jophon stared at the scene of destruction.  “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” he demanded.  Herlglut responded with his usual, surly look.  Jophon’s gaze lingered for a moment on him, and then Borivat, and finally Marie, at which point it hesitated, before he turned and ran from the attic.  Herlglut stared after him for a moment, while Borivat turned his attention back to Marie’s inert form.

The Present Day

               Tapping his foot, Kiluron wondered how he could diplomatically prompt Fetrina along.  Although he could not know quite how long they had been in the stuffy closet of a room where the visible portions of the gate mechanisms were housed, since there were no windows from which to see the sun, he was certain it had been too long for his taste.  He was never going to get the smell of mildly rotten grease out of his nostrils.

               “And about how many units of force do you have to exert to open the gate?” Fetrina was quizzing the guard manning the gate mechanism.

               “Uh, I don’t know, Ma’am,” the guard stammered.  He had responded that way to most of Fetrina’s questions.  “Ma’am, all due respect, I just work here.  I don’t have the slightest idea how this whole thing’s supposed to work; I just know it does.  And that’s good enough for me.”

               Fetrina hmphed, and stepped away from the guard to peer more closely at the gears, her tongue sticking slightly out from between her teeth.  If he hadn’t been so concerned about the fact that he had been fumbling through stilted conversations with her since they had started his rounds, he might have been able to better appreciate how beautiful she was when she was excited about something, without feeling guilty about it.

               “We really ought to be continuing on…” Kiluron suggested, earning a grateful look from the guard and a sour look from Fetrina, which seemed rather backwards to what his goals should have been.

               Snapping her notebook shut, Fetrina tucked her pen away, and nodded.  “Fine, if you insist.”

               When he stepped out into the sunlight again, Kiluron took a deep breath of fresh air.  “The good news is that the next part of the rounds is one of my favorites.  Beautiful views of the western forest, especially in the late afternoon like this.”

               “Well, in that case…” Fetrina favored him with a smile, and offered him her arm again, which he took awkwardly.

               They stopped along the wall after a ways, looking out the west.  “You’re right,” Fetrina agreed, “that is quite the view.  I wonder why the sun creates such spectacular colors in the evening and the morning.”

               “I have no idea,” Kiluron admitted.  “You’re far more likely to know that or figure it out than I am.”

               “You’re cute when you’re humble,” Fetrina remarked.

               It was a relief to Kiluron that the sound of running feet slapping on the wall’s heavy stones kept him from having to come up with some kind of a response to that, and hopefully distracted Fetrina from the flush that had shot through his cheeks.  Turning, Kiluron narrowed his eyes.  “Doil?” he called.  “What are you doing here?”

               “Long story,” Doil panted, stopping beside Kiluron and holding onto the stone for support.  “We need to arrest someone.  But we need to keep it quiet.”

               Kiluron frowned.  “What are you talking about?”

               Holding up his hand, Doil took a moment to suck in great, heaving breaths of fresh air; he had run all the way from the castle to the western side of the city after Borivat had finished telling his story.  It had taken some persuasion to convince Borivat that Kiluron could be trusted to help, but Doil had insisted, mostly because he did not want any part of trying to confront Esaphatulenius on his own.  Ideally, to Doil’s mind, they would have informed Prime Wezzix and brought the entire city guard with them, but Borivat had been insistent that the whole affair be kept as quiet as possible.  Prime Wezzix and the old Prime had never found out about exactly what had happened, only that it had involved the Blood Priests – it had led to the reinforcement of the Blood Decrees, and the souring of relations with the Isle of Blood.  “Short version: there’s a man named Esaphatulenius; we think he’s staying in the merchants’ neighborhood.  He’s a member of a renegade sect of Blood Priests who believe that the only way to achieve true balance in the world is to bring everyone under the domination of the Blood Priests.  Twenty years ago, he tried to stage a revolution in the shadow of a solar eclipse.  Now, he’s back in the city, and we need to arrest him before he tries again.”

               If it had been up to Doil, he would have required far more information, a lot more background, and significant persuasion to decide this was permissible, much less advisable.  Kiluron, however, was not Doil.  “Good enough for me,” he declared, and turned to Fetrina.  “Sorry, my Lady.  Duty calls…”

               Fetrina’s expression was inscrutable.  “I understand.  Stay safe.”

               Kiluron stared at her for a moment, then nodded sharply, and broke away.  “Come on,” he said, and took off running.  Doil sighed, took a deep breath, and followed.

               “Don’t you think we should have brought some backup?” Doil asked between pants, when he had caught up, at least temporarily, to Kiluron.

               “You said we needed to keep this quiet,” Kiluron replied.  “I can handle one old man.”

               “I hope you’re right,” Doil muttered, and then turned all his concentration back to not dying as they continued to run through the city.  It was fortunate that people tended to move aside when they noticed the Sub-Prime running along the street, since otherwise the crowds, out on an unusually nice day in the winter, would have been nearly impassable.

               Initially, Doil had wondered how they would figure out in which house Esaphatulenius was staying, but Kiluron marched up to the people walking along the street, who lived in the neighborhood, and simply asked them if they’d seen anyone with remarkably black eyes.  They had an address within half a dozen inquiries, and then they walked up to the house.

               “Should we knock?” Doil asked.

               “No,” Kiluron replied, and, tensing up, crashing through the door with his shoulder.

               “Ah,” Doil remarked, “we’re taking the subtle approach.”  Kiluron gave him a sour look, drew his sword, and moved into the house.  Doil followed.

               It was, Doil realized after a moment, the same house that Borivat had described in his story, although the fire damage had been repaired.  “We should check the attic.  Over there,” Doil indicated, and Kiluron nodded, changing his steps in that direction.

               The wooden door opened with a creak, letting out the faintest whiff of smoke, or perhaps that was added from Doil’s imagination, residue of the fire that had burned here when Borivat had last confronted Esaphatulenius.  As the door opened, Doil saw the man himself on the balcony, clad in his distinct red cloak with the fist-and-disc sigil emblazoned upon it, looking out over the city.  Evidently, he had replaced it since losing the one that had burned in the fire.  His legs were supported by some kind of framework, and a crutch leaned against the wall beside him.  He didn’t look at Kiluron and Doil as they entered the room, although he did speak.

               “Novin sent you, I suppose?”

               Kiluron cleared his throat.  “By the authority granted me as Sub-Prime of Merolate, you are hereby under arrest for treason against the nation of Merolate, sedition, and incitement to rebellion.”

               “I prefer the term ‘revolution,’ to rebellion,” Esaphatulenius remarked, finally turning to face his accusers.  His eyes were as solid black as they had been when he had summoned the fire demon.

               “Whatever.”  Kiluron gestured with his sword.  “Are you going to come easily, or am I going to need to use this?”

               Esaphatulenius laughed.  “Idiot boy.  Your sword means nothing to me.  I understand so much more than you can possibly imagine.  And you’re supposed to be the future leader of Merolate?  Please.  It is no wonder that your nation must eventually fall.  You place no value on knowledge or learning.”  He turned to Doil.  “And you?  I smell Novin’s cowardice upon you.  For all his intelligence, he always lacked vision.”

               “Doil, am I allowed to stab people for being annoying and possibly insane?” Kiluron asked, keeping his eyes on Esaphatulenius.

               “I wouldn’t recommend it,” Doil replied, reluctantly.

               Turning back to the view from the balcony, Esaphatulenius beckoned them closer.  “You needn’t worry,” he remarked, sighing.  “I’m dying, you see.  I don’t know exactly when, but I suspect it will be soon.  The two of you might be the only two to witness my demise.”

               “You’ll excuse me if I’m not going to just believe that,” Kiluron observed.

               In response, Esaphtulenius held up his hands.  Smoke was curling up from his fingertips, and Doil considered that the scent he had caught had not simply been his imagination.  “It’s really astonishing that I was able to stay alive as long as I did, after what that traitorous Blood Priest did to my demon,” he considered, sounding more like he was talking to himself than like he was addressing Kiluron and Doil.  “A result of my brilliance and mental resilience, I suppose.  But my cause will not die with me.”

               There was more smoke now, and it was no longer just coming from Esaphatulenius’s fingers; it was seeping out of pores all over his body, his skin beginning to visibly whither onto his bones.  Doil looked away, coughing, but turned back when he had a thought.  “Why?  Why now?  Why come back?”

               Esaphatulenius opened his mouth to answer, or at least to say something, but only smoke poured out, with no intelligible words forming.  In moments, he was nothing but a withered skeleton held together by taut, dry skin, which tumbled to the ground, causing Kiluron to leap backwards.

               “That was disgusting,” Doil remarked.  “I feel like we’re missing something here.  Something must have changed, for him to come back.”

               Kiluron poked the corpse gingerly with his sword, and then sheathed the blade.  “Well, it doesn’t matter now.  He won’t be bothering us again.”  They headed back to the castle together, but Doil couldn’t quite shake the feeling that some piece of the puzzle was still missing.

Twenty-One years Ago

               “I can save her.”  Herlglut had moved to crouch down next to Borivat, wincing as he did so.  “But the price will be steep.”

               Borivat wiped his eyes, and looked up at the Initiate.  “You’d charge for saving a life?”

               “Bah.  That’s not what I meant.  I meant for her.”  Herlglut jabbed his thumb at Marie’s limp form.  “I can bring her back to the Isle.  Out here, she might survive, but she’d certainly be crippled.  On the Isle, she could have a full life.  But she would have to stay on the Isle.”

               “Stay?” Borivat asked.  “As in, become a Blood Priest?”

               Herlglut grunted.  “We’re not a disease,” he remarked.  “It’s what I would choose, if given the choice.”

               Borivat nodded at Marie.  “She should be able to choose.”  He fought to keep his voice steady.

               “But she can’t,” Herlglut snapped.  “You’re the only one who can choose for her right now.  What do you choose?  And you have to choose quickly, or she won’t survive, and I’ll need to leave, regardless.”

               “Take her.”  Borivat bowed his head.  “Do what you can for her.”

               For a long moment, Herlglut locked eyes with Borivat, then slowly nodded.  He gathered Marie up into his arms.  There was a moment’s hesitation after he stood, as if he was going to say something else, but then he turned and disappeared back into the attic, leaving the house behind.

               Borivat watched them go, and then settled down to the corner of the balcony and sobbed.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E7: Cracks in the Ice. 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 August 31st, 2020.

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

Copyright 2020, IGC Publishing

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