Rationally, the days were getting longer, and for that matter they were theoretically getting warmer, as well.  With the snow falling gently outside, in a steady, light flurry, it should have been a beautiful, pristine, peaceful night, if a bitingly cold one.  Perhaps, under other circumstances, it would have been, but even knowing all of that to be true, it did little to convince Doil that there was anything benign about the present darkness.  There was something about the castle halls in the deepest parts of the night, especially in the heart of winter, that he found unrelentingly ominous.  It almost seemed like there was a weight to the halls independent of their physical masses of stone and metal, perhaps an echo of their long histories.  No wonder he studiously avoided leaving his chambers whenever he could.

              But he had finished the pile of books he kept in his chambers, and he hadn’t been able to sleep, so he had determined to put aside such an unreasonable fear of the castle halls in the dark, when he found them quite unremarkable during the day, and venture forth to one of the studies to retrieve something else to read in the hopes that he would eventually be able to find some comfort in sleep.  It seemed increasingly unlikely; there was something about this night that was putting him on edge, and his journey out of his chambers had only exacerbated that irrational intuition of impending doom.  It would be more prudent, he supposed, to simply return to his room now, burrow under the covers like some kind of small, furry animal, and hope that hibernation found him before morning came and he had to go through a whole day without having slept.

              He had just determined to turn and return to his room, when a soft rustling sound filtered through to his ears, like cloth rubbing over stone, perhaps someone dragging a cloak that hung just slightly to long behind them as they strolled through the corridors.  Doil hesitated, and crept reluctantly towards the corner to peer around towards the source of the noise, but when he looked, he saw nothing but empty darkness.  A cold wind filtered down, and he shivered, turning back the way he had come, when he heard the noise again, this time in a different direction.  He looked again, and there was again nothing there.

              “You’re just overtired and freaking yourself out,” Doil muttered, choosing to speak aloud with the thought that the sound of his voice would be reassuring, but it only served to make him feel smaller and more vulnerable.

              “You’re just overtired and freaking yourself out…”  The voice sounded almost exactly like Doil’s, but it definitely had not come from him.  He spun around towards the source of the noise, but there was nothing there, only a patch of shadow.  Doil pinched himself, scrunched and rubbed his eyes, and blinked hard, before looking at that patch of shadow again.  There was still nothing there.  Wearily, and warily, occasionally casting glances behind him that revealed nothing untoward or unusual, Doil made his way back to his rooms, and shut the door firmly behind him.  He bolted the door shut, too, which made him feel a little more comfortable, but he didn’t really feel safe again until he had crawled back beneath the covers on his bed, no matter how irrational a battlement those might be.

              Still, he could not quite shake the feeling that there was something watching him.  Peeking out from beneath the covers, he saw nothing, so he swung his legs out of bed and scurried across the cold floor to his dresser, where he fumbled around until he found a candle.  A few more moments of fumbling around at the hearth produced enough heat to light a taper, and thence the candle; its flickering light was some small comfort as it pushed back the gloom.  “You must be really overtired now,” Doil muttered as he crawled back into the bed.  “Good thing Kiluron’s not here to see you being afraid of the dark.”

              “You must be really overtired now…” the voice was the barest of whispers, still sounded like Doil, and it was clearly coming from inside his room.  Doil sat bolt upright in bed, eyes straining for the source of the voice, looking around with frantic motions, but found nothing.  “Good thing Kiluron’s not here to see you being afraid of the dark…”

              “Who’s there?” Doil demanded, attempting to project more confidence than he in fact possessed at that instant.  “If this is some kind of a trick, it’s not funny anymore.”

              There was a long silence.  Then: “who’s there…”  A pause, of precisely the length that Doil had paused, before “If this is come kind of trick, it’s not funny anymore…”

              Convinced sufficiently that whatever this was not likely to be deterred by a few blankets, if it chose to be threatening, Doil swung himself out of bed again, went to the dresser, and returned to the bed with a dagger, which he gripped tightly as he sat cross-legged atop the covers, shivering in the chill winter’s night, for all that he was inside.  “Alright!  What do you want?  Who are you?”

              Again, the only response was his own words, parroted back to him in his own voice.  “Alright…What do you want…Who are you…”

              “Blood and balance!” Doil swore.  “What is wrong with you?  What is wrong with me?”

              The only reply he received was his own questions repeated precisely as he had presented them, albeit softer and trailing at the ends of each.  Doil rested his forehead on his wrists before looking up again.  “Fine,” he snapped.  “I can sit here all night, if I have to.  I bet I can keep this up longer than you can.”

              “Fine…” the mysterious voice replied, in a perfect mirror of Doil’s own frustration.  “I can sit here all night, if I have to…I bet I can keep this up longer than you can…”

              As soon as he noticed lights beginning to flare to life in the windows across from his, Doil climbed out of bed, dressed, and looked once again around his room.  It was obscenely early, and having been up most of the night left him chilled and slightly shaky.  However tense and nervous he had been through the entire night, it had not left him with reserves of energy to draw from, and he found himself dreading the day while looking forward to there being people around; surely his mysterious, nocturnal tormenter would not be able to follow him around and repeat everything he said back to him in the bustling castle throughout the entire day.  He was by far the first one to enter the council chamber, where the servants were just beginning to set out breakfast for Kiluron, Wezzix, Borivat, and him.  He opened a book and attempted to concentrate on reading, studiously not saying anything so that he could ignore the possible presence of his tormentor.

              Breakfast consisted of butter and jam on fried biscuits, with cold smoked sausages; the servants had the whole spread laid out before the Prime arrived each morning for his daily conference with Borivat, Kiluron, and Doil, which nearly always occurred at dawn.  The first rays of true sunlight were just beginning to spear through the high windows of the chamber when Prime Wezzix strode in; Doil rose to greet him, bowing.

              “Relax, Doil.”  Prime Wezzix waved him back down into his chair, and settled himself down.  “You’re here rather early.”

              “I suppose I am, my Lord,” Doil replied.  He hesitated.  “I didn’t sleep very well last night, so I figured it was better to just go ahead and start the day.”

              For the barest instant, Doil thought that he heard the faint whisper of his nocturnal tormentor start to repeat his words, but then Wezzix began to speak, easily drowning out whatever other voice there might have been, and Doil dismissed it as his imagination.  “I know how that feels,” Prime Wezzix averred, assembling a plate of breakfast.  He gestured at the food.  “Go ahead and help yourself – we both know Kiluron will be late.”

              Borivat walked in, bowing to Prime Wezzix and nodding to Doil before taking his own seat.  A servant brought him a steaming mug of tea, which he wrapped his long fingers around and inhaled the steam from deeply, savoring the warmth and moisture.  Doil wondered if he should try to talk to Borivat about the voice he had heard in the night, but decided against it.  The most likely explanation was that someone had been playing a trick on him; perhaps if the voice continued into the day he would have to take more seriously the possibility that there was something really unusual at play, either with the world or with him.

              “Morning, folks,” Kiluron hailed, strolling through the door with an enormous yawn and plopping himself into the remaining chair.  He started to reach for the food, apparently decided the stretch was too much effort, and simply flopped his arms down on the table.  “We done yet?”

              Trying to be subtle, Doil stared hard at Kiluron; he wouldn’t put it past the Sub-Prime to have been the one trying to freak him out that night.  Was he more tired than he usually was?  Were his clothes especially disheveled?  There was no indication that Doil could see.

              “What are you staring at?” Kiluron asked, patting at his head.  “Is my hair all messed up or something?  I promise I ran my fingers through it after I got out of bed this morning.  Do I have something on my face?”

              “No, uh, sorry,” Doil stammered.  “It’s nothing.  Just spaced out for a moment, is all.”

              Again, there was the faintest hint of a whisper before it was eclipsed by Kiluron speaking normally.  “Oh, alright.  Let me know if anyone has anything important to say, would you?  I’m going to take a nap.”  He laid his head on his folded arms on the table and closed his eyes.

              “Kiluron,” Wezzix snapped.  Kiluron’s head snapped back up, and he looked around, blinking blearily, as if not certain where he was or how he had gotten there.  “Focus, please?  Borivat, the agenda, if you would.”

              Borivat unrolled his scroll, and laid it out on the table in front of him.  “Of course, my Lord.  Discussion items for today include preparations for the spring summit with the province governors, the recently submitted report on the Nycheril continent, Ebereen’s proposal for a joint military venture to claim part of the Unclaimed Territories, Old Sankt’s request for official diplomatic relations with Merolate, the colonization proposals for Nycheril, Corbulate’s continued push for an expansion of Merolate’s military capability (of course led by Corbulate), and budgets for the spring season.”

              “Let’s table the colonization discussion for now,” Wezzix amended.  “I want that Nycheril report that we all had to read distributed to anyone looking to put together a colonization proposal before we devote any time to reading through such proposals.  Plus, diplomatic relations with Old Sankt should be established first, since they’ve been trading with the continent for longer than we’ve even been travelling there.”

              “Understood.”  Borivat made the indicated changes to the agenda.  “Shall we begin with Old Sankt, then?”

              Wezzix nodded.  “Their proposal seemed like they feel they have the upper hand in these negotiations, despite being a rather outdated, island nation.  Or am I missing something?”

              “No, my Lord,” Borivat agreed.  “Sankt was the first major power in this hemisphere.  Six hundred years ago, when the nations of Lufilna did not yet exist, Sankt was overseeing a mercantile empire that included both Lufilna and Nycheril, as well as various islands in the Aprina Sea.  Although they did not exert political control over that territory, their navy patrolled the Aprina Sea and maintained a forced peace through control of travel and trade.  The dozens of nations on both continents at the time dared not go against Sankt, or they would have been economically crippled.  Their prosperity made their island a center of learning and enlightened thought.  Their ruling council was replaced peaceably about three hundred years ago with a public forum, giving all citizens of Sankt a vote in all policy decisions.  The change led to their collapse; consensus could not be reached consistently, and their trading empire dissolved.  They’re now a shadow of what they once were, maintaining an outdated navy and a trickle of trade with Nycheril.  The Blood Empire’s coincident rise hastened the end.”

              “So, in other words, they don’t really have a leg on which to stand with these demands for favored nation status and a military alliance,” Wezzix said.  “It’s just hot air?”

              Borivat frowned.  “Not exactly.  About fifty years ago, Sankt’s Public Forum was able to agree on a change of government, and they’ve now instituted something they’re calling representative government.  A Representative Forum of about a hundred people elected from the population now runs their government, and one of the first things they did was rename their country ‘Old Sankt,’ presumably to indicate a desire to return to their glory days when they dominated the hemisphere.  So although they don’t have the physical or economic power to back up their claims and requests, those aren’t just plucked from thin air; it’s based on their history and national pride centered around returning to that heritage.”

              “Understood.”  Wezzix rubbed his nose.  “Regardless, favored nation status and military alliance are out of the question.  I’m prepared to increase trade with them, and establish bilateral embassies.  In return, I want a treaty of noninterference when it comes to Nycheril.  Draft such a proposal, and we’ll send it on the next ship to Old Sankt.  Nycheril has a lot of potential, and I don’t want it to be impinged upon by diplomatic complexities and delays.  Now, what’s this about a joint military venture with Ebereen?”

              After a moment of shuffling about, Borivat found the relevant papers.  “Once the winter clears on the steppes, they’re proposing a tandem campaign to conquer and civilize the triangle of the Unclaimed Territories that extends to the south.  Jurisdiction would be split between the two nations, and both sides would need to contribute forces to maintain the peace for at least five years.”

              “Ebereen doesn’t have the resources to make that kind of long term commitment,” Wezzix mused.  “If we do this, it would be up to Merolate to patrol it and make it safe in the long term.  That being the case, I think that it should become a new province of Merolate, eventually, perhaps after a term of joint control.  That’s if we go through with this kind of military campaign.  Have Governor Parl conduct an analysis; that ought to appease him that we’re not completely neglecting the military.”

              Nodding, Borivat made another note.  “You know we can’t delay the budget conversation forever.”

              Wezzix sighed.  “Yes, I know.  You have the figures?”

              “Right here,” Borivat agreed.  “Shall we begin?”

              Kiluron tentatively held up his hand.  “Do I really have to sit through this?”

              “Yes,” Doil snapped.  “My Lord.  Finances can be the defining factor of a nation’s health, as Borivat’s discussion of Sankt illuminated.  It’s important for you to see what goes into this process.”

              “Yes, I realize that,” Kiluron replied in kind.  “And I’ve sat through these budget discussions at for every season for the past three years.  I think I get the general idea.”

              “Kiluron, you’re staying,” Wezzix declared.  “Borivat, please continue.”

              Kiluron shot Doil a sour look, as if Wezzix’s decision was his fault.  Doil pointedly ignored the expression; he still suspected that it was Kiluron who had been trying to freak him out the night before, and thought he was so impatient with the proceedings because he was just as tired as Doil from being up all night.  Of course, there seemed no reason for Kiluron to have chosen to do something like that on that particular night, but Doil put that aside as incidental.  It was a better explanation than any of the others that he had come up with so far.

              Borivat’s finger ticked on each item as he brought the relevant papers into position.  “City Guard, Navy, Castle Guard, and Border Control, of course, for military spending.  Under infrastructure, we have routine improvements to roads, walls, outposts, and other buildings, as well as an expansion of the road network, and several initiatives to improve the harbors.  Each of the provinces have submitted their usual proposals.  Consumables, including food, fuel, servants and other personnel, spirits, clothing, décor, and raw materials in the way of ore, lumber, and so forth.  Funding for scholarship and the arts, with the usual special provision for the Merolate library.  Foreign aid.  Merchant subsidies.  Most of this, I assume, we’ll just roll over from the previous season’s budget.”

              “Why do we go through this every season?” Kiluron asked.  “Why not just do this once a year or something?  It seems more efficient.”

              “Funding needs can change significantly between seasons,” Borivat replied, not even bothering to look up from his papers.  “Military funding, for instance, is cut drastically in the winter, while costs for food, clothing, and fuel all increase markedly.  It’s why we’re careful to stockpile in the summer and fall, when prices are lower.  Now, are there any other questions, or can we start getting through this?”

              Tentatively, Doil held up his hand.  “Sorry.  I was just wondering why we need to subsidize the merchants.  Doesn’t that mean that we ultimately end up paying many of them twice?  Once for the subsidy, and then again when we purchase their goods?  The Merolate government is by far the largest single purchaser of most goods, with at least a plurality of purchasing power in most industries, where it does not have an outright majority.”

              It was a good thing that the voice, if it was still following him, was too quiet to be heard over someone else talking, because Doil did not want to hear it regurgitate something that lengthy.  Fortunately, Borivat was already answering his question.  “Merolate’s provinces are primarily bound together by trade; the provinces themselves were politically independent entities until approximately eighty years ago, but by that time they were already largely indebted to Merolate’s merchants.  The reasons for this are somewhat complicated – Merolate essentially paid out the vast majority of its nobility into becoming merchants instead, freeing up land for development by farmers and other interested parties, while kickstarting an economic revolution.  A woman named Aedimy had proven that a traditional aristocracy was actually a drain on state resources, which led to the conversion, but that’s a digression for another time.  Basically, the Merolate government had to subsidize the merchant class into existence in the first place, so the subsidies are essential to maintaining their loyalty.  From a more practical perspective, merchanting is risky business.  Weather, bad actors, and all kinds of other dangers can impose significant losses on their operations, which would ultimately cause either rampant price increases, or decreased operations.  Since we, the government, want those operations to continue, we subsidize the merchants to make up for those losses and keep the economy functioning smoothly.”

              After computing the figures in his head, Doil nodded.  “Thank you.”

              “Thank you…”

              Borivat smiled.  “And to answer your next question, we’ll be beginning our study of economics soon; we had to give you a sufficient background in data analysis first.”

              By the time he was saying that, Doil was no longer listening.  He looked around, searching for the source of the voice – it had sounded like it had come from the empty chair at the table across from him, but there was no one there.  “Did anyone else hear that?” he asked.

              Everyone looked around, uncertain what Doil was referencing.  “Did anyone else hear that…”

              Kiluron looked at him with narrowed eyes.  “Hear what?”

              Doil hesitated, then plowed ahead.  “That voice, the one that’s repeating everything I say in a whisper.”

              Again, a long silence as everyone listened.  “That voice, the one that’s repeating everything I say in a whisper…”  This time, the voice trailed off even more quietly at the end, almost whistling like the wind on the last word.  “Like that!” Doil exclaimed.

              Pursing his lips, Kiluron shook his head.  “Doil, did you get into one of the old liquor cabinets of something?  I know there’s some bad juice that’s been in there too long…”

              Doil glared at Kiluron, who held up his hands.  “Well, whatever,” Kiluron said.  “I’m definitely not hearing voices.  And it makes a whole lot more sense for there to be something wrong with you than for you to be being haunted by something that none of the rest of us can hear.”

              Borivat sighed.  “Although his presentation could do with some refinement,” he remarked, “Kiluron’s basic premise is correct.  The most likely explanation is that you are simply overtired or similar – we know that such states can affect the way the mind works.  Perhaps you should go lie down for a spell; I can tell you didn’t sleep well last night, no matter how you might try to hide it.”

              Doil looked from one face to another, finding no sign of recognition, although a distressing amount of sympathy.  He stood up abruptly.  “I…yes, that’s probably it.  I’ll just go do that.  My Lords.”  He bowed, and hurried from the room, trying not to feel that their eyes were burning into him from behind, that surely they were whispering about him while he was away.

              His concerns on that count were quickly replaced by a profound feeling of dread, that something was much closer to his back, or perhaps even right beside him.  “You’re not real,” Doil stated, keeping his voice as monotonous as possible.  “You are a figment of my overtired mind, some kind of bad humor.  Nothing more.”

              Of course, the voice repeated his words right back to him, as he had known it would.  As it did, he found that he was no longer frightened of it, per se; he was frightened of what it was doing to him, but he could not help but feel, as irrational as it might be, that if whatever it was really existed, and had wanted to harm him, it already would have done so.  No matter how hard he tried to convince himself that Borivat’s explanation was most likely to be correct, that the simplest explanation was usually the best one, a sort of intellectual razor, he could not dispel a certain conviction that there was more to this than being overtired or indigestion.  However, he prided himself on being rational, so he determined to rule out the possibilities.  Upon returning to his room, he locked the door firmly behind him, lay down on the bed, and sought to fall asleep.  Of course, this took longer than it ought to have, since falling asleep deliberately is always a lengthier process than simply falling asleep, but eventually he succeeded.  This way, if the voice was still there when he awoke, he could be fairly certain it was not a result of overtiredness.  What he would do then, he had not yet determined.

              It was midafternoon when Doil awoke, approaching evening; he certainly had been tired from his sleepless night.  As soon as he had rubbed his eyes and stretched to dispel the worst of his grogginess, he sat up in bed, and looked around.  “Hello?”

              With no appreciable delay or change in character from the previous night or the morning, the voice answered him.  “Hello…”

              Resolving to avoid saying things that would make the voice seem more like it was having a conversation with him, rather than simply repeating his words, Doil took a deep breath.  “What do you want?”

              “What do you want…”

              A year ago, Doil suspected he would have responded as Borivat had.  In scholarly circles, there was no evidence to support the existence of paranormal creatures, ghosts, poltergeists, demons, or any other manner of specters or supernatural entities.  Skepticism, therefore, was the best way, especially when the only evidence was not repeatably and independently attainable.  The theories of rational philosophy also strongly supported that conclusion.  That would have been enough, a year ago, to convince Doil that he was simply hallucinating, and that either the hallucination would go away eventually on its own, or it would get worse, and he would eventually go insane.  There was no room, under that paradigm, to acknowledge that the voice might have a real, physical, external source.

              That was a year ago, though, before Doil had seen demons, with Kiluron and a Blood Priest by his side, and seen those same demons defeated by the Blood Priest.  It was before he had heard Borivat clearly describe a fire demon and seen a man simply wither away in front of him.  Ordinary scholarship, he felt, lacked certain key pieces of information necessary to frame what he was now experiencing.  Furthermore, the usually healthy skepticism that was embraced amongst the scholastic community had the dual effect of making that same community more close-minded towards ideas that disrupted or disturbed the equilibrium, the status quo.  Paradigm-shifting ideas or concepts could, under rational philosophy, be safely discarded under logical pretenses, unless an enormous preponderance of evidence was immediately tangible.  No, turning to scholarship would not, in this case, yield any useful answers.

              There were, though, people who were experts in the very things that modern scholarship was so quick to dismiss.  That was, after all, precisely what had led to the popular decline of most scholarly efforts that now came from the Isle of Blood; their readiness to embrace a view and model of the World that included quantities not readily measurable or objectively provable by independent sources.  Not least of these was the existence of another, linked World, but that was somewhat beside the point.  Doil knew firsthand that the Blood Priests knew things about demons that the rest of the world either had never known or had long since forgotten, whether accidentally, or intentionally in the various purges that had taken place since the fall of the Blood Empire.  If he was going to find answers about his visitor, whatever it was, the people to ask were the Blood Priests.

              That, however, would require going to the Isle of Blood.  Which was illegal, to say the least, and from what Doil understood, one did not visit there on the cheap.  If he wanted answers, he would have to be prepared to pay, perhaps steeply.  Considering the kinds of payment he imagined would be acceptable on the Isle, the prospect was not an attractive one.

              “I don’t suppose you’re just going to go away?” Doil asked.  “This seems like a really bad idea.  Because I really don’t want to do this.”  But there also seemed few other options.

              There was a silence, in which Doil’s hopes that the voice had simply vanished soared, only to be dashed again after the same delay there had been every other time before the voice repeated his words back to him.  “I don’t suppose you’re just going to go away…This seems like a really bad idea…Because I really don’t want to do this…either…”

              Doil whirled around in his seated position on the bed, tangling himself in the blankets, and nearly falling back onto the mattress.  He managed to stabilize himself, and looked around as if this time he would be able to find the voice’s source by visual inspection.  “What?  What did you say?”

              The voice came back to him.  “What…What did you…What did I say…?”

              Trying to calm his pounding heart, Doil wished that the voice had some physical manifestation, so that he could know to where he ought to be addressing his words, or perhaps more importantly, from which direction he should be guarding himself.  “Are you trying to communicate with me?”

              “Are you trying to communicate with me…Are I trying to communicate with you…”  It might have been Doil’s imagination, but he was sure that the second repetition had sounded less like a question.

              Doil scrambled to his desk, mostly because he could usually think more clearly from there, and turned to where it sounded as if the voice were coming from, although the sound wasn’t localized the way a human voice would be.  “I’m definitely going to need help with this,” he muttered.  Aloud: “Can you understand me?”

              “…help…help…I’m definitely going to need help…Can I understand you…”

              This time, Doil wrote down the words that he heard.  He wasn’t certain why the others hadn’t been able to hear the voice, but he was no longer able to convince himself that it was simply a symptom of an overtired mind.  If his mind was coming up with something like this, he had a better imagination than he had ever imagined.  “Who or what are you?”  He tried to sound firm and demanding, like Prime Wezzix issuing an order – not cruel, but brooking no argument.

              “Who or what are you…Who or what are I…”

              Perhaps that had been the wrong approach.  Doil pointed at himself.  “I’m a human being.  And I’m called Doil.”  Once again, he wished he knew from whence the voice was coming, this time so that he could point to it in turn.  “Who or what are you?”

              “I’m a human being…I’m called…I’m called…I’m called…”  It kept repeating the last, and Doil might have simply been ascribing his own feelings to it, but it seemed like it was searching for an answer to the second question, like it knew, whatever it was, that it was supposed to have a name, but it couldn’t recall what it was, sort of like the feeling of having the answer on the tip of his tongue but not being quite able to spit it out into words for someone else to understand.

              For a moment, Doil hesitated, pondering his next step, until the voice spoke again, for the first time of its own initiative.  “When…where am I…?”

              That was enough for Doil; the voice, whatever its source, clearly possessed at least some semblance of both intelligence and sentience.  This was not an invisible case of one of those exotic birds that some of the sailors had brought back from Nycheril that could be taught to repeat certain words and phrases, though without any actual understanding of the language.  Perhaps his next step would have been to bring his conclusions to Borivat, but Borivat hadn’t supported him in the meeting, so Doil was reluctant to go to him now.  Besides, Borivat’s own dealings with the supernatural had not exactly been on an intellectual level.  Only the Blood Priests seemed likely to have the knowledge he needed to understand what was happening to him, and why he alone was hearing the voice of what seemed to be an independent entity.  Having thus decided, Doil resolved to wait until the cover of darkness before setting forth for the Isle.

              Too soon, for Doil had been savoring the delay in the action concomitant with his decision, night arrived, and the voice had still not offered any further revelation of its nature or purpose, nor had it determined to simply leave Doil alone.  Nor, as he had to some extent hoped, had it determined to reveal itself to any other person, at least insofar as Doil had been able to ascertain, although the voice has grown increasingly coherent and conversational, to the point that Doil, when he wasn’t too occupied being terrified of the voice or of his next move, could hold entire, reasonably complex conversations with the voice.  It almost seemed as if it wasn’t so much learning to speak for the first time as simply learning a new language.

              It was more difficult to row a tiny boat out to the Isle of Blood than Doil had anticipated, and he was sore from fighting waves, not to mention soaked from the same, by the time that his little rowboat bumped against the grey, rickety docks of the Isle of Blood.  Managing not to fall into the sea, Doil tied his boat to the dock, and stepped gingerly across the ancient, splintery boards until with some relief he reached the shore – never had he thought to think that he was relieved to be standing on the shore of the Isle of Blood.  Ahead, the vague, ominous outlines of the temple complex loomed out of an unnatural mist that clung to the entire Isle, enveloping it in a mysterious cloak and keeping unwanted eyes from seeing what they did not want to see.  The rocks crunched slightly beneath his feet as he walked towards the main gates.

              In his head, Doil admitted that he was not certain what he would do when he reached them – did one simply knock when approaching the Blood Temple?  Was there some ritual he needed to perform?  Or perhaps they would demand payment before he was even allowed inside the Temple.  It was the Blood Priests, after all, who preached that all things had their costs.  He was saved from having to decide when he noticed a stirring in the mists ahead, and realized that the gates seemed to be swinging open of their own accord.

              “Well, I guess now we’ll see how bad this is going to be,” he muttered, and nearly jumped out of his skin when the voice expressed its agreement almost right into his ear.

              A red-robed figure emerged from the mist, or perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that the mist parted for the figure, swirling and moving aside like a guard hound stepping aside that its master might inspect its catch, yet staying close enough to close teeth in throat should that catch yet manifest a threat.  Doil’s heart hammered in his chest, and he took an involuntary half-step back before he was able to gather again the scattered, inconsistent threads of his courage.  The red-robed figure stopped a pace in front of Doil, and lowered her hood.

              “Welcome to the Isle of Blood, Doil of Merolate,” the woman intoned.  In a softer voice, she continued, and now there was a smile that Doil could almost have been convinced was friendly.  “It is so good to finally meet you; Borivat has told me so much about you.”

              This was not by any conceivable exertion of the imagination the kind of response Doil had anticipated.  “Um, you know Borivat?”  He tried with some difficulty to keep the skepticism from his voice.

              “Hm,” the priestess replied in the affirmative.  “I am Priestess Marinae.”  She paused, waiting for Doil to connect the dots.

              “I’m sorry,” Doil said.  “Am I supposed to know you?”  He hesitated.  “You’re not some kind of terribly high-ranking priestess or something that I’m supposed to have studied?  Borivat would never forgive me for embarrassing him like that.”

              Priestess Marinae laughed.  It was definitely not the maniacal, evil laugh that Doil tended to associate with the Isle of Blood; it had far more in common with the laugh of the serving women in the castle kitchen pleased to be teaching their children all of the secrets of making the best loaves of bread for the Prime.  “Would it help if I told you that my name was once Marie?”

              Perhaps it still took Doil longer to figure out the relation than it ought to have, but he felt that the circumstances were somewhat extenuating.  “You’re that Marie?  Priestess Marinae, sorry.  But the same as was with Borivat in the incident with the fire demon?”

              A smile played on her lips, and Priestess Marinae inclined her head.  “The very same.  So you have heard of me.”  Turning serious again, she brought back Doil’s worry.  “What brings you here?  It’s rather unusual that we get visitors from the castle.”

              Doil hesitated.  “How much is it going to cost?” he asked warily.

              Priestess Marinae sighed.  “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually exact a price for asking questions, nor even for the information offered in answer, at least not every time.  Tell me what’s going on that brings you out here, unsanctioned, and then we can discuss what needs to happen next.”

              “I – alright.”  Still uncertain, but growing more confident as he spoke, Doil began to explain what he had been hearing, and the conclusions he had drawn.  “But no one else can hear it,” he finished, with another sigh, “so everyone just thinks I’m crazy.  If we’re quiet for a moment, we’ll probably hear it speak, or at least I will.  I really don’t know what to do, and it seemed like the Blood Priests would be the ones who might know something about – about being haunted.”

              To his relief, Priestess Marinae seemed to be taking him seriously, or at least she made a good show of doing so.  “It is possible that the voice belongs to an entity that exists purely on the spiritual plane.  That would explain it being invisible to us.  Plus, if that’s the case, such entities typically communicate telepathically, so what you’re “hearing” isn’t really an audible voice at all – that’s just how your mind is interpreting the input it’s receiving.”

              “Can we detect it somehow?” Doil asked.  “And why me?  What does it want?”

              “I don’t know why it may have chosen to attempt to communicate with you.”  Marinae peered at him.  “You haven’t offended or have unfinished business with anyone recently deceased, I assume?”  She continued before Doil could answer.  “As for finding it, we have tools that allow us to peer into the spiritual plane in the Temple.”  At Doil’s askance look, she sighed.  “I promise that we won’t jump a blood debt on you for services rendered.  We’re not barbarians.”

              This assurance did little to ameliorate Doil’s trepidation, but he allowed Marinae to lead him through the huge, lurking gates and into the Temple.  Inside, there was no mist, leaving the place open to Doil’s inspection: he found within a distinct lack of the grisly scenes he had expected.  No blood speckled the polished stones, no weapons, rusty, bloodstained, or otherwise, bedecked the surfaces, and no skeletons adorned the recesses.  In fact, it was probably cleaner than many parts of Merolate’s castle, and in the stillness of the night, it was quiet and, aside from a certain ominous cast from the dark color palate of the decorating scheme and his own knowledge of the place, it was actually rather peaceful.

              Marinae led them to what was, Doil realized, simply a study, complete with books, a map, a writing desk, and several comfortable chairs.  Where there would normally be trinkets and artifacts, though, there were devices of a nature that Doil preferred not to contemplate, all made primarily of the same, black stone of which so much of the Temple had been built.  After seating Doil, whose nervousness had now returned in full force, in one of the chairs, Marinae went to one of the bookshelves and retrieved a device that looked like a signet ring, like those used for pressing sealing wax, except that instead of a ring, a thin needle extended from the back face.  Doil eyed it.

              “What is that?” he asked, hoping that his voice wasn’t actually as squeaky as it sounded to him.  It probably sounded worse.

              To his surprise, Marinae answered directly.  “This is an artifact created about two hundred years ago to enable Blood Priests to share thoughts.  One priest inserts the needle into their skin, somewhere on their neck, and the other must apply a drop of blood to the symbol on the other side.”

              Doil swallowed.  “I thought you said we wouldn’t need to shed blood.”

              “No, I said that we wouldn’t jump a blood debt on you,” Marinae replied.  “There are other things we could try, but this is by far the easiest, and the quickest.  I promise that the amount of blood actually involved is minimal; it’s more of a catalyst than a source of power, for this particular use.  It will allow me to hear your thoughts, and since I am attuned to the spiritual plane, I should be able to thus perceive the source of your mysterious voice.”

              “There isn’t another way we could try first?” Doil asked.  “Something that doesn’t involving being pricked by thaumaturgically active needles?”  Describing magic in technical terms helped calm him from his agitation at the prospect, if very slightly.

              Marinae sighed.  “Yes, there are other ways.  You could devote the next five years of your life to studying with the Blood Priests here in the Temple, and by the end of that time you might be able to perceive the spiritual frame yourself.  Might – it takes some people longer.  Or I could use a transcending mirror, but that would only allow the voice, whatever it is, to communicate with us, not us with it, and it would probably drain my entire body of blood in the process.”  She crossed her arms, and Doil noticed the tip of her black sword poking out from beneath her red robes.  It was a potent reminder that she was a full Blood Priest, not just Borivat’s former friend.  “You came to the Isle of Blood for help.  If our methods are too distasteful for you, then you should not have bothered.”

              For another moment, Doil hesitated, before he took a deep breath.  “Alright.”  He nodded at the sigil-bearing needle.  “Let’s try it.”

              Moving to stand behind him, Doil could not see Marinae nod.  “This will sting,” she warned.  Before Doil could respond, he felt a needle prick the skin at the back of his neck, right at the base of his skull.  There was a brief moment of pain, and then it faded.

              “Was that it?” Doil asked.  Then he felt Marinae press her thumb to the exposed sigil, and instead of feeling awake and rather nervous, he felt as if he were in one of those waking dreams, the kinds that feel just like reality, even though you are completely aware that they’re not real at all.

              “Can you hear me?” a voice spoke inside his head.  It sounded just like his own voice, but it was not him speaking.

              “Who are you?” he asked.

              “Marinae.  I am sharing your thoughts.”  He had the impression of looking around himself, and then Marinae spoke through him again.  “Say something aloud.  Ask the voice to speak.

              It took a surprising amount of concentration to say something aloud while in this peculiar state.  “Hello?” Doil asked.  “Are you there?”

              “Hello…”  This time, Doil felt like he could hear the voice both audibly, and in his head.

              “Who are you?” Doil asked.  “What do you want?”

              The voice came back to him.  “Who are I…What do I want…What I want…I want to know…Who are I…”

              Marinae spoke in his head.  “Good, very good.  Keep it talking, keep it engaged.  I can almost make something out on the spiritual plane.”

              Doil searched for something to say.  “What are you doing?  Why are you here?  Why did you choose me?”

              “Questions…so many questions…” the voice sounded fuller now, somehow more complete.  “Choose…we must choose…I choose…Who I am…Why I am here…What I am doing…Chosen…”

              When Marinae pulled away from the sigil, breaking their connection, it was like a shock of cold water.  The voice faded, too, returning to its more garbled, less coherent state, and Doil slumped in his chair, feeling the way a piece of cloth that had been twisted up too many times to get the water wrung out of it probably feels.  Marinae, too, appeared unsteady on her feet as she walked from behind Doil to fall into one of the other chairs.

              “What did you find?” Doil asked, when he had managed to pull his scattered thoughts together.

              Looking up from rubbing her thumb, which she had cut open to activate the sigil’s telepathic link, Marinae groaned.  “Not as much as I had hoped,” she admitted.  “And more than I would have liked.  You’ve been hearing the mental manifestation of some kind of being.  It’s massively connected to the spiritual plane in ways that I could not quite discern, and I had the impression that although the manifestation was very new, the entity itself was ancient.  It’s not just a ‘ghost’, that much is certain.”

              Doil dodged his fear for the moment.  “I’m not sure whether to be relieved, or more frightened than I was before.  What do we do about it?”

              Marinae shook her head.  “I’ve never seen or heard about something like this before.  I have some ideas, but…I need to do some research.  This isn’t a possession; I don’t know why it’s chosen to focus on you.  As far as I can tell, it could have chosen anyone.  Come back in three days, and maybe I’ll be able to offer you something more certain.”

              There was nothing more Doil could do, save to thank Marinae, return to the castle as quietly as he could, and try not to drive himself crazy over the next three days.

              In three days, as promised, Doil returned to the Isle of Blood, again under the cover of darkness.  He had done his best to limit contact with anyone during that time, claiming to be ill, and emerging from his rooms only when he had no other choice; he thought Borivat suspected something, but Doil shut down his inquiries.  It was harder to put off Kiluron, who was more liable to listen to his instincts than he was to Doil’s carefully crafted, logical arguments and explanations, but Doil’s consistent reticence seemed sufficiently frustrating to have put Kiluron off of trying to learn more about Doil’s ‘condition,’ which Doil only hoped would last long enough for him to dispel whatever it was that was causing the voice.  It still followed him, still copied his words, but now it sometimes spoke of its own accord.  Doil couldn’t explain the reason for the impression, but he was convinced that whatever it was that was speaking was growing stronger, though he could not have said what that meant.

              Marinae met him at the docks and swept him immediately into one of the Temple’s study-like rooms; Doil wasn’t sure if it was the same one, although he suspected it wasn’t.  Once they were both seated, Marinae spoke.

              “How much do you know about demons?” she asked.

              It felt to Doil like his eyes were surely about to pop out of their sockets.  “Demons?” he squeaked.  “I’m more familiar than I would like.”  He tried to calm his breathing.  “I’m being possessed by a demon?  Is that what’s happening?  It’s something to do with that Esaphatulenius fellow, isn’t it?  I knew there was something strange going on there.”

              Holding up her hand, Marinae tried to stem the flow of words.  “You’re not possessed,” she insisted.  “But I do think that the voice you are hearing belongs to a nascent demonic manifestation.”

              If Doil had expressed his thoughts aloud, they would have said something like “Oh, good, technical language.  Let me seize on that, instead of thinking about being possessed by a demon.  Oh no, now I’m thinking about being possessed by a demon again.”  Aloud, he said, in a voice saturated with artificial calm, “I don’t think I quite follow.”

              “Well,” Marinae began, “according to the Faith, and as we’ve previously discussed, there are two realms: the physical and the spiritual.  The realms themselves are parallel, but they can interact through manifestations.  We are ourselves one of the most powerful manifestations, with strong presences in both realms, although we exist mostly in the physical realm.  Think of manifestations like – like the imprint of a pen going through multiple sheets of paper, although the ink is only upon the topmost sheet.”

              “Okay…” Doil acknowledged.  It sounded like religiously motivated pseudoscience to him, but he was the one who had come to the Isle of Blood for help, so he didn’t think he was in a position to say that.  “Go on.”

              “Well, balancing the human existence in the physical realm, demons exist mostly in the spiritual realm, but have a presence in both realms,” Marinae explained.  “After humans, they are the strongest single source of manifestations – interactions between the realms.  Some of them are thought to even possess a rudimentary sentience.  While humans eventually die, demons do not; they exist perpetually in the spiritual realm.  However, they do not always manifest, and when they do, it is referred to as a nascent manifestation, and in many ways the demon will have the aspect of a newborn: uneducated, naïve, helpless.  The strongest ones will be able to interact in limited ways with the physical realm, just like humans can occasionally interact inadvertently with the spiritual realm.  I think this is what has happened with you; it is probably unconsciously using you as an anchor.”

              Doil rubbed his eyes.  “So I’m not possessed, I’m just being used as an anchor by an extremely powerful baby demon.  That’s so much better.”  He looked at Marinae.  “Can we set it adrift?”

              Marinae stood up and moved towards the study’s desk.  “I’ve spent the last two days, after I came up with this theory, trying to find a way to do exactly that.”  She held up a white stone the size of her palm; it looked a little like an opal, but there were ridges all over it.  She held it gingerly in a pair of tongs.  “I had to use a lot of blood to make this, and it leveraged learning that hasn’t even been read by most priests in hundreds of years.  I don’t know if it will work, but I think it’s the best chance we have.”

              “What is it?” Doil asked, as Marinae brought it towards him.

              “The Isle of Blood has spent the past three centuries attempting to distance itself from the stigma of the Blood Empire and its ham-fisted tactics and brutal rule,” Marinae noted, “but they did accomplish some amazing feats of magic.  Among them was the ability to create a simulacrum.  From what I was able to learn – there isn’t a lot of information remaining, and what does remain is not of great quality – they used these to deliberately communicate with demons.  If this works, it will create a temporary simulacrum to which the nascent demonic manifestation can anchor itself, allowing you to escape.”

              “And the catch?” Doil asked.

              Marinae hesitated.  “If I did it wrong, or if I did it too right, this could drain all of the blood in your body.  It could kill you.”

              Doil nodded.  “I guess I kind of expected something like that.”  He laughed nervously.  “Do I have a choice?”

              Marinae shook her head.  “Not if you want to get rid of the demon within a human lifetime.”

              “Well.”  Doil took a deep breath.  “I guess we might as well give this a try.”  He held out his hands.  “What do I have to do?”

              “Just hold this,” Marinae instructed, and she dropped the opal-like stone into his palm.

              As soon as it touched his hands, Doil almost yanked his hands away; the fine ridges and whorls he had seen from a distance proved to be razor sharp, and sliced immediately into his skin.  Fighting the impulse to cast it away, he flexed his fingers, and forced them closed around the stone.  His hands accumulated more cuts, but no blood dripped free; all of it was being absorbed by the stone, and it kept on absorbing it.  Doil thought he could feel it actively trying to pull blood out of his body.

              “Yes…more…” the voice was speaking, booming in Doil’s head, in the room; it sounded eager, greedy, hungry.

              Doil tried to pry his fingers free, and found that he could not; they were stuck on the simulacrum stone.  “I can’t let go!” he shouted.  “I think it’s killing me!”

              Marinae knelt in front of him.  “It’s alright,” she replied.  “It hasn’t overdrawn yet.”  Doil was noticeably paler, but that was expected; even a partial simulacrum would require a lot of his blood.

              “Kill…let me go…” boomed out the voice, and Marinae jerked upright.

              “I could hear it that time,” she whispered, mostly to herself, but Doil watched her, his fear increasing at her uncertainty.  “I shouldn’t have been able to do that.  Something’s going wrong!”

              The door to the study slammed open, revealing a wizened figure who, despite his age, held the black sword of a Blood Priest in steady arms as he advanced into the room, magic outlining his entire, red-robed form.  Marinae leapt backwards, stumbling over a chair and falling in a heap.  “We must stop it!” High Priest Yorin yelled.

              His left hand seized Doil’s wrist in a vice-like grip that belied his apparent weakness, and Doil felt ice shooting up and down his arm.  His fingers spasmed, and at last the stone fell free, drawing streamers of blood from his palm along with it; it was no longer white, but swirled with blood that was almost iridescent, as if a slick of oil covered the stone.  As soon as it had fallen free, High Priest Yorin flashed out with his sword, the point driving into the stone, which shattered, the blood draining away into the fragments as if it had never been.  The inside of the stone was a black that seemed to draw in the scant light in the study.

              His unexpected strength seemed to leave him in a breath, and High Priest Yorin sagged, leaning on his sword.  “Are you alright, young man?” he wheezed, wrapping strips of his own robe around his non-sword hand, which Doil could see had a wide slash across the palm.

              Turning his hand up and down, Doil saw that his hand looked like he had fallen and caught himself on his palm, but the bleeding had stopped.  “I – I think so.”

              “Then at least something has been salvaged.”  High Priest Yorin levered himself back up to his feet, and shoved his sword into its sheath.  Other Blood Priests began streaming into the room, swords drawn, but he waved them down.  He shuffled around the chair to Marinae, and helped her to stand.  “And you, my dear?” he asked.

              “I’m alright,” she said, rubbing her head.  “Just – caught by surprise, is all.”

              Yorin nodded.  “Good.  We’ll have words about your conduct later.  Experimenting with Empire techniques…” he muttered.  He rubbed his head.  “Still, perhaps it was inevitable.  Come.”  He gestured at Doil.  “Let’s get you back to Merolate.  I believe that I must have words with your Prime, yet again.”

              Sitting on the deck of a Blood Isle ship, Doil looked around at the grayed timbers, the slender mast with its single, furled sail, and the half-dozen Blood Priests standing about, and considered that coming into the presence of the Prime accompanied by the high priest of the Isle of Blood would ordinarily have been a nightmare, were it not for the overwhelming nightmare that Yorin claimed had been unleashed through the simulacrum.  It was dawn, and the fog across the bay was slowly dissipating from grey to gold.  The small ship homed out of the mist like a crusader for the darkness’s endurance, and Doil could see soldiers go running as soon as it came within sight of the docks.  Relations with the Isle of Blood ebbed and flowed, but a ship bearing the High Priest’s personal banner would not be stopped.

              When Doil entered the audience chamber, his eyes were focused on its people: Borivat, Wezzix, and Kiluron.  Wezzix was impassive, as he always was when receiving, though perhaps there was a slight tightening around his eyes when he saw Doil standing beside the High Priest.  Borivat was nearly as inscrutable, although he was noticeably surprised to see Doil with the Blood Priests.  Kiluron, of course, had no such compunctions.

              “Doil?!” he exclaimed.  “Blood, what are you doing on that side of the chamber?  Get up here.”

              Doil glanced at the Prime, who nodded slightly, and with some relief Doil joined Kiluron again.  High Priest Yorin then stepped forward.

              “Prime Wezzix, thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” High Priest Yorin announced, bowing slightly to the Prime.  “Although I now wish that I had made this visit sooner.”

              With a sigh, Prime Wezzix rose and responded in kind.  “High Priest Yorin.  I assume there is a good explanation for you coming here with Kiluron’s servant in tow?”

              “Have you read the most recent report from the expedition at Heart City?” Yorin asked.

              Nodding, Prime Wezzix glanced towards Borivat, who stepped forward.  “They have made excellent progress, particularly with respect to some groundbreaking attempts at translating Heart City’s language.”

              Yorin interrupted.  “More pertinently, the Blood Priests have learned more about Gältrok’nör’s Guardian.  When I warned you before that the Guardian had been awakened, I still harbored hope that it would have been weakened by the centuries.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Its new awakening has not merely been the reawakening of the original Gaurdian.  It has produced an entirely new manifestation.”

              “Okay…” Prime Wezzix glanced towards Borivat again.  “But you said the Guardian was no threat to us, directly.”

              “This situation makes me wish that we had at least normalized our academic efforts,” Yorin muttered.  “An ancient manifestation, even one as powerful as the Guardian, would have been limited to the extent that it could identify similarities to its original circumstances.  A new manifestation, though, would be able to take a much more active role in our current world.”

              Borivat held up his hand.  “High Priest, you are suggesting that the Guardian has a new manifestation.  How could you know this?  Demonic manifestations almost never cross over to the physical realm, if I understand your philosophies correctly.”

              “A demon as strong as the Guardian would easily be able to access the physical realm in the form of a nascent manifestation.”  Yorin rubbed his thumb over his sword’s pommel.  “The voice that your Doil was hearing, that you dismissed?  It was the nascent manifestation of the Guardian demon.  We at the Isle had been trying to attract it to attach itself to one of us, so that we could contain it.  We nearly succeeded, but it attached itself to Doil, instead.  We didn’t realize what was going on at first, and so Marinae attempted to transfer it to a simulacrum.  The attempt failed.”

              Prime Wezzix slowly stood up.  “And this means?”

              Yorin sighed heavily.  “It means that the Guardian is fully empowered again.  And it could be anywhere.”

The end of Blood Magic S1:E8: Who’s Afraid of the Dark? 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 September 30th, 2020.

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